The Information Society Moves Forward

Internet use and modern telecommunications are spreading to all sectors of society
Questions relating to the information society are not discussed very often in the Lithuanian press or on television. No additional government meetings are held. Legislation on the issue is passed without much debate.
The subject is usually only touched on in discussions about the distant future, on special occasions, and it turns into concern when statistics on Lithuania in comparison with other countries are just satisfactory, which has recently been the case quite frequently.
Does this mean that an information society is not being created in Lithuania? Not at all. The information society is not a remote vision. It is a reality for people, and the number is constantly growing. IT specialists were the first to learn how to communicate on the Internet. Then came business people, students, artists and others. Today the Internet is no longer something unusual in schools and libraries. It is also reaching more and more people in the countryside.
Economic growth
What factors have determined the rapid changes in this area? First of all, the active and innovative private sector. The general potential of the private sector is best reflected in the economic growth of the last few years, which exceeded 6 per cent (it was 6.5 per cent in 2001, and 6.7 per cent in 2002). In the information society, it can best be observed when evaluating the capacity of the telecommunications infrastructure.
After its privatisation, Lietuvos Telekomas, the largest telecommunications company in Lithuania, made extensive investment into both its management and its infrastructure. Today around 90 per cent of lines are digital (before privatisation, the figure was only 12 per cent), and the digital broadband ADSL is accessible to 80 per cent of the population. The company has changed from being a typical Soviet-style service into a modern enterprise known for its policy of continuously updating the training of its employees.
Mobile penetration reached 45 per cent in 2002, and exceeded the penetration of fixed-line communication (30 per cent). The short message service (SMS) has become very popular.
For instance, mobile data messaging services provided by the mobile operator Omnitel exceeds the average in Eastern Europe by 200 per cent, and the average in Western Europe by 50 per cent. Short messages are used to provide various services, to pay for parking in Vilnius and Kaunas, or to provide information about travel and cafes. They can also serve as English and German dictionaries.
The largest mobile communications companies, Omnitel and Bit?, are constantly expanding their range of services and offering new or improved products. For example, in 2002, according to a contract between Bit? and Kaunas Technological University, a laboratory for mobile solutions was set up on the premises of a Bite sales outlet in Kaunas.
It carries out research and experiments in mobile telecommunications, data transfer technology, and the creation of application solutions. The third largest provider of mobile services, Tele-2, is growing rapidly, both in terms of customers and the quality of communications and services.
According to a sociological survey carried out by the company Spinter in March in 2003, the mobile telephone market came third in an evaluation of which economic area is the most free and liberal in Lithuania. The exclusive rights of Lietuvos Telekomas in the fixed-line communications market expired on 1 January 2003, and the first alternative provider of fixed-line communications, Eurocom, started operations in March. However, the telecommunications business in Lithuania is quite complicated. The first reason is the constantly and rapidly changing legal environment, and the second is the heavy regulation of the sector.
Internet grows
Internet penetration, which was very poor in Lithuania a few years ago compared with other countries, increased to 20 per cent in 2002 (at the beginning of 2001 it had stood at less than 10 per cent). This leap was effected mainly by an alliance of private companies, Langas i Ateiti (Window to the Future), which first consisted of two banks, Vilniaus Bankas and Hansa-LTB, and two telecommunications companies, Lietuvos Telekomas and Omnitel. In one year, it established 66 public Internet access points in 51 out of the 60 local government areas. This year, the alliance, in cooperation with the IT companies Alna and Sonex Group as new members, is teaching clients at these centres how to use computers and how to surf the Internet.
According to an opinion poll of school principals (Spinter, 2003), more than 90 per cent of secondary schools and gymnasiums use the Internet. At the end of 2002, there was one computer to every 31 students (the plan is to have one to every ten in 2004). Support from private individuals and companies has been a significant contribution in getting this result.
The achievements in e-government services are more modest than in the business sector. Only a few e-government services are provided in Lithuania, and most of them are only Level 1 or Level 2, that is, information is posted on public institutions’ websites, and people can download documents or application forms.
The Department of Statistics has introduced three statistical reports that can be filled in and submitted electronically. The Tax Inspectorate and Social Insurance Fund also provide forms for e-reports, but they have to be submitted as original paper documents as well. A computerised customs system is still operating in a fragmentary way. The setting up and the quality of e-government projects depend very much on the public administration system, which is still to be reformed.
In spite of the discussions about which institution should be responsible for policy on the information society, some progress has been observed. The Information Society Development Committee (established in 2001 in the Seimas) systematically monitors and evaluates the investment made by various public institutions into the development of the information society, and supervises the implementation of legislation. In the spring of 2003, a report on the implementation of a detailed development plan for the information society for 2002 was published. It allows us to take a glance at the implementation of policies on the information society. The main problems that arise in creating a knowledge economy and an information society in Lithuania are analysed in detail in the March 2003 World Bank study Lithuania. Aiming for a Knowledge Economy .
Future prospects
So what are the prospects for the development of the information society in Lithuania? The market seems to be very favourable. People who come on to the labour market can no longer imagine working without a computer or the Internet, and more and more older people are learning how to use them. With economic growth, people’s incomes are going up as well, and their priorities on expenditure are changing. This can also be testified to by the recently increased sales of computers, to users at home in particular. Lithuanian companies have good experience and many possibilities to expand their markets in foreign countries. Thus, the market welcomes both those who provide goods and services, and those who want to use them.
In order to maintain this, a favourable economic environment is needed, which is determined by economic developments globally and by government policy. The latter can contribute to the faster development of the information society, by improving overall business conditions, reforming the remaining old-style sectors (such as public administration, the pension, education and healthcare systems, and agriculture), and by reducing the state’s commercial activities and its interference in the market.