Antenna to the East

A follow-up story to the September LJ issue topic of community networks.

My old friend Stephen Lewis, a native of Manhattan's Lower East Side and a part-time resident of what he calls "The People's Republic of Brooklyn", has long made his primary home in Sofia, Bulgaria. A citizen of both the US and Holland, Steve is veteran of Europe's telecom industry (also a two-time Fulbright Scholar). Lately he has been interested in applying in Bulgaria what neighborhood wireless folks have been learning in New York City. So he eagerly joined my Wi-Fi explorations through his old neighborhood and a number of meetings as well. Here's his report. --Doc Searls

Wi-Fi is an extremely liberating technology. With it I now can travel to work in, say, Paris or Amsterdam without stuffing my bag with cables, phone jacks and alligator clips. And I can do this without paying year-in/year-out for rarely used local dial-up accounts or low-speed GSM mobile data connections at over-priced, unregulated international roaming rates.

But, for me, Bulgaria is the challenge. From here in New York, I wanted to examine the gains Wi-Fi could offer to the infrastructure, economy and people of the country that has been my adopted home for more than a decade. Over the last month, I have been shaping a number of proposals for public service initiatives to serve the town of Sofia and neglected villages of Bulgaria's country-side.

Sofia is a good candidate for Wi-Fi deployment. It is home to several universities and some of Europe's most technically sophisticated young people. Few westerners realize that, prior to the implosion of communism in 1989, Bulgaria had been well on its way to becoming the Soviet Bloc's own Silicon Valley. In the 1990s, Bulgaria's underemployed young hackers kept their skills in shape by developing and exporting a steady flow of computer viruses. Today, Bulgaria enjoys a substantial software development community, Linux included.

In Sofia and other cities, Bulgaria's leading ISPs currently offer a form of wireless broadband distributed from television towers or other broadcasting points to Wi-Fi access points on users' premises. At least one Sofia-based university has reportedly issued an RFP for a turnkey Wi-Fi installation project.

Public access Wi-Fi like the New York model does not yet exist in Sofia nor anywhere else in Bulgaria, nor is there an active Wi-Fi alliance. It is my aim to gain EU or US sponsorship to precipitate both.

The obvious starting point for wireless networking in Sofia is free access in the public parks, squares and outdoor café sites that dot downtown Sofia, as in New York, and/or on a line through the center of the city using fiber from Sofia's partially constructed metro system, as in Paris. This would be a boon for the western business people and bureaucrats who are flocking to Sofia following Bulgaria's approval for NATO membership and EU accession. It would add substantially to the city's infrastructure, facilitate Sofia's role as a regional business and service center and boost the attractiveness of the its downtown. Still, it would not directly benefit most Bulgarian computer users, few of whom can afford serviceable laptops.

Like laptops, Internet access is still an expensive luxury in Bulgaria, a country where mid-range monthly salaries are several hundred dollars at best and far less for most people. Phone charges are frightening. The crash program to digitize Sofia's phone service to conform with directives for EU accession brought not only better quality connections but also a change in local tariffs from flat-fee per call to time-based charges. People who used to spend hours on-line now log off quickly. As for cable access, basic television services cost six or seven dollars a month, with surcharges of as much as $25 a month for Internet access.

Therefore, my second goal is to identify residential or business incubation areas with high desktop computer penetration, high need for broadband access and low aggregate ability to pay for dial-up or cable access. First on the list is Sofia's densely populated Student City, a chain of overcrowded high-rises built in the early 1970s, following Paris' lead, to isolate potentially rebellious student populations from the center of the city. Here, bandwidth could be bought wholesale from cable suppliers and transmitted to students free of charge or at a token cost using donor-subsidized hardware.

My third goal is to look beyond Sofia to deploy Wi-Fi access as a regional development tool. Apparently, some years ago, the US Peace Corps brought access to a former mining town high in the Rodope mountains, the natural boundary between Bulgaria and Greece. This summer I will look at the outcome of this project and identify towns and villages where a Wi-Fi "last mile" can serve people and boost the economy.

I was impressed by the Linux-based solutions put together by Terry Schmidt (creator of Linux Pebble) and others involved in the NYCwireless effort. I expect local Linux experts will jump in and help with all three parts of this project in Bulgaria. In fact, I doubt it could happen without them.



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Internet Availability in remote villages in the Bourgas Region

Christina's picture

So pleased to see some interest from the experts in enabling internet access in remote villages in Bulgaria. There are some problems in Bulgaria, not only in terms of the infrastructure and communication systems, but in terms of corruption and malpractice. Consumer rights is in my experience almost non-existent. The electricity supply to some remote villages is faulty - power surges causing damage to electrical appliances and house fires; the main telephone company refuses to send out proper detailed bills to customers in remote villages (even when the system is digital) and sends out extortionate bills - especially to UK citizens. I received bills for calls that I could not have made because I was in the UK at the time and no one had access to my property. The regulator did not even respond to my complaint. Some Restaurants have two menus - one inexpensive menu for Bulgarian citizens and one expensive menu (for the same food) for British people. EU funds disappear. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful country and most Bulgarian people are good and honest people. Incidentally, I know the best first small village for the computer wiz kids to provide internet access to - it's a village called Draka, near Sredets, Bourgas region - the fact that I live there and am desperate for the internet has nothing to do with it! Please at least don't make Draka the last village in Bulgaria to receive internet access. I'm old and grey - I had so many ideas and hopes and I can't even get my mobile to work there. I'm too scared to have a landline telephone again because BTK appear to be under the misapprehension that everyone from Britain is rich. One signs a contract for the charges, however, subsequent charges bear no resemblence whatsoever to the agreed contract charges - and these companies just get away with it. The villagers in Draka will welcome computer experts with open arms, but be prepared - the villages and the big cities are like two different worlds in Bulgaria: Sofia, Bourgas, etc are similar to any western large city, in contrast - in the villages - it's like going back 60 years in time - horse and carts, Donkeys and carts, earth toilets in the garden, sitting amongst flocks of sheep and goats, etc - and there's no tea - just Rakia.

If someone could help remote

Christina's picture

If someone could help remote villages in Bulgaria gain access to the internet it would be a great help to the economy in Bulgaria and to individuals like myself who live in a remote village. Mtel and BTC do not currently provide internet coverage to my village (which is near Sredets, in the Bourgas region).

I feel the technology is there to make the internet available to any region, regardless of how remote. However, as per usual the large companies are just concentrating on providing services to the large cities and towns. The villages are totally neglected.

If anyone knows a specialist who can help it would be good to hear from them.

Re: Antenna to the East

rjanow's picture

Dear Steve:

Good article. The fact that the Bulgarian
phone people are doing away with
unmetered local calling should really drive
local access WI-FI infrastructure.

But you omit mentioning how the phone people
managed to push through a deal that seriously
screws the local population, as you describe.
In the absence of a source of unmetered connectivity,
on-line usage is likely to spiral down sharply, killing
off local participation in the global stage.

Re: Antenna to the East

Anonymous's picture

Hi Stephan,

Fascinating story! As a Bulgarian-born Canadian, this story is of particular interest to me.

I am an Electrical engineer and a software developer. My interest is communications, and particularly in developing low-cost methods to communicate for remote areas, and developing countries. In 1995 I came up with device to send faxes over the Internet with a regular fax machine