The Internet in Estonia

by on April 17, 2012 at 6:45 am in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and has been for a decade.

Viik says you could walk 100 miles – from the pastel-coloured turrets here in medieval Tallinn to the university spires of Tartu – and never lose internet connection.

…Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.

Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.

Estonia is also at the forefront of privacy issues. Everyone in Estonia has a national ID card, which might frighten some Americans–although we already have essentially the same thing, but everyone in Estonia also knows who else has accessed their records. Thus, compared to the United States, Estonia is in many ways a more transparent society. Estonia is also on the forefront of dealing with cyber-terrorism with their own national “electronic” guard.

More at The Guardian.

Andreas Moser April 17, 2012 at 6:49 am

Doesn’t this Wi-Fi cause cancer?

david April 17, 2012 at 7:39 am

Estonia’s free public wifi is not state-funded, surprisingly enough, especially when similar grassroots measures elsewhere have failed. Perhaps it’s a multiple equilibria problem: if you’re the only free wifi provider, people overload your connection, whereas if you’re one out of many then the load imposes zero marginal cost. But I do note that any jurisdiction that puts responsibility for monitoring abuse on the connection provider is discouraging Estonian-style wifi quite heavily. Conversely Estonia is willing to trace abuse down to the user level, with all the false-positive privacy invasion this may entail along the way.

What will probably make Westerners panic is the digitally-enabled ID card, though, yes. Its usefulness is what probably drives much of the Internet adoption.

Someone from the other side April 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I think the responsibility issue cannot be overstated: I would be gladly sharing 5 out of my 25mbit pipe (on another VLAN so my private data is safe) but with the responsibility for traffic being what it is where I live, that is a rather bad idea…

Jonathan April 17, 2012 at 9:03 am

There’s important path-dependence here. The fact that telephone service was so poorly provided makes the provision of wi-fi easier.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 9:10 am

How so?

The Engineer April 17, 2012 at 9:24 am

No DSL, for one thing. If you can’t get DSL (or cable), muni Wi-Fi makes a lot of sense. It fairly easily solves the last mile problem.

Zachary April 17, 2012 at 9:26 am

The same reason that it is easier for every Masai to have a cell phone – None of whom ever owned a land line.

Ted Craig April 17, 2012 at 11:13 am

This a key point many overlook when they discuss how far behind the U.S. is in telecom generally. We didn’t need cell phones because Ma Bell worked.

Mikk April 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

Well, it is true that 20 years ago half of population had no phone line, but today it is not true. Everyone or at least almost everyone has a cable here in Estonia. Cable came first, wifi later, I do not think that path-dependance is a good explanation.

Jeremy H. April 17, 2012 at 9:41 am

“National ID card” sounds less scary when you realize that Estonia has a population the size of the Memphis, TN metro area.

Ed April 17, 2012 at 11:04 am

Yes, and when I hear these stories about small (populations no more than 5 million) countries implementing ideal policy x, I remember Aristotle’s warning about the proper size of sovereign states. I’m paraprashing heavily, but he essentially said that if everyone couldn’t walk downtown to attend an afternoon town meeting, the people lose control of its polity and it becomes all crappy. The truth of this was demonstrated in Aristotle’s own lifetime, but of course the problem is how to get from here to there.

Daniel Dostal April 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I’m fairly certain the problem is that “there” is a fictional place that derails us from improving our existing governance.

8 April 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Some dudes in 1776 and 1861 had the solution. Implementation is tricky.

Andrew' April 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I’m pretty sure the “it becomes all crappy” part is exactly what Aristotle said.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 9:49 am

Makes sense but I’m thinking over what range does that sort of argument hold. e.g. India never had good highway connectivity but did that mean building airports is “easier” today? East Germans traditionally had crappy cars; so was selling modern cars any easier post 1989?

Is WiFi a cost-neutral, equal-utility substitute for home internet or an improved “luxury” mode of access that people aspire to? Does early adoption of a technology tie people down to primitive versions?

Lance April 17, 2012 at 11:51 am

I’m guessing the argument requires non-convex non-simultaneous adjustment and complementarities.

As a trivial personal example, when I was a poor student many years ago, I bought a digital camera that used an xD card, and bought a few relatively expensive memory cards for it. When I was on the market for a new digital camera, I looked only at cameras that used the xD card, because I wanted to keep using the expensive memory I had bought. Once I had the new camera, the memory upgrades I bought later were xD, and the cycle continued. It broke when I was able to simultaneously invest in a new camera and new memory in the superior standard.

For a less trivial example, I remember Philip Bobbitt making a similar argument for complementarities between political institutions leading to temporary lock-in in his book “Shield of Achilles.”

Daniel Dostal April 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Early adoption on a large scale certainly does tie us down to a certain tech. Cost/benefit clearly shows this to be the case. I blame our “good enough” cable and phone systems for poor network speeds in the US. It’s also a much better explanation for electric cars in India.

Separate point, building airports in India isn’t important because of British rail. They continue to use the same rail system built in the colonial era.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Long distances rail transport is no doubt important in India, but as of today only for freight and the poorer classes. e.g . A journey from Mumbai to Kanyakumari is about 2100 rail-kilometers and takes about two full days.

And this is using an “express” train assuming it is running on time. That’s an average speed of maybe 35 mph (if you are lucky!). Compare that with flying speeds and it explains the huge flying boom India has had in the last decade.

The ironic part is that for many route points the actual travelling time in the British era, say 75 years ago, was less than what it is today.

JWatts April 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm

“The ironic part is that for many route points the actual travelling time in the British era, say 75 years ago, was less than what it is today.”

It’s probably true of more than a few routes in the US today, once you factor in security.

The Engineer April 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Why has muni Wi-Fi failed in the US? Because people had alternatives that were more attractive (DSL, Cable, and now 3G and 4G). They were unwilling to pay for Wi-Fi. Look at articles about failed muni Wi-Fi systems, like the one in St. Cloud, Florida. No one was willing to pay, that was the bottom line.

But if you don’t have those alternatives, perhaps you are willing to pay for Wi-Fi.

dead serious April 17, 2012 at 9:50 am

National ID card sounds less scary when there aren’t Patriot Act-supporting Republican types sullying your governing bodies.

Ted Craig April 17, 2012 at 11:20 am

As compared to Patriot Act-supporting Democrats?

Ted Craig April 17, 2012 at 11:16 am

“Estonia is also on the forefront of dealing with cyber-terrorism with their own national “electronic” guard.”

Well, of course they are, since the Russians already shut the country down once:

Steven Kopits April 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Budapest has had cell phone coverage in the metro since at least 1994. We still don’t have it in the New York subway system (at least for AT&T).

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Just a few months ago on a trip to Berlin I had a weird experience: My cellphone always reliably had an Edge data network each time I rode the underground. The Edge-reception in the rest of the city was variable. This was very counter-intuitive to me.

Marian Kechlibar April 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Maybe the dedicated network segments in metro aren’t as overloaded as in the city. There are at most a few hundred, more likely several tens of users of the signal in the same station as you. In the city street and nearby buildings, there may be thousands.

Baltic guy April 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm

WiFi from Tallinn to Tartu? C’mon, that’s fairy tale. Big deal is national voting over internet using IDs. Online tax return- pretty much common in this area. So were is a catch?

Garrett W April 27, 2012 at 3:46 am

No one bothers with facts. They just print whatever retarded jackassery they find and write some stupid editorial nonsense about it. There isn’t even wifi (free and public) across Vanalinn/Kesklinn. This is such a crock of shit.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Perhaps off-topic, but can WiFi routers hand over a receiver to another router seamlessly without breaking the connection?

JWatts April 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm

If they are on the same network, yes it’s trivial. I have two in my house and most industrial plants I work in have dozens. Generally they all have the same SSID and your computer will seamlessly switch over to the strongest single. It’s pretty common to walk around from one area to another with the laptop open and an active connection to a plant system running and never lose connection.

However, I doubt the ones in Estonia are all on the same network. So I’d imagine that would not be true.

To April 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I don’t know about Estonia, but a few ISPs in France give you the option of opening your wifi to other customers of the same ISP. You find plenty of such “personal” hotspots, and can login with the same id/password as for your DSL connection. The SSID is standard for each ISP, so I expect switching would work.

To April 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I’m all for digitizing as much as possible, but I have issues with electronic voting. With a paper ballot, anyone can observe the voting and vote-counting process, and a sufficiently organized group can come up with an independent count. With e-voting of any kind, you basically count on government to be honest.

Marian Kechlibar April 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm

No, you do not have to trust the government. There are electronic voting protocols that are easy to check for ballot correctness, while keeping anonymity of individual voters. Modern cryptography is powerful.

Whether Estonia uses such sophisticated protocols, I do not know.

To April 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Link ? I’m interested…

Andy April 18, 2012 at 3:42 am

For example if you don’t care about anonymity it’s easy to solve this problem: just publish the list of everyone and who they voted for. As long as some large enough random sample of people check that their vote is listed correctly, any manipulation will almost surely be detected. This is even better than paper voting, since you don’t have to trust that whoever is checking the votes does it properly.

Now all you have to do is fix the anonymity part, which is where cryptography comes in.

Marian Kechlibar April 18, 2012 at 5:04 am

If you’re really interested in the protocols, I suggest you read the (relatively comprehensible) Bruce Schneier’s book “Applied Cryptography” ( AFAIK, voting protocols are covered there.

Robert Ferraro April 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

Schneier does not support internet voting. The vulnerabilities are overwhelming. It is an invitation to tampering and impossible for citizens to audit the results. It is extremely dangerous to democracy to be promoting internet voting at this stage of our understanding of computer security.

jorod April 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Obviously, they have a shortage of Democrats.

Mister Pickles April 19, 2012 at 8:46 pm

“Estonia is also at the forefront of privacy issues. Everyone in Estonia has a national ID card…”

I just don’t see how these 2 things can co-exist. Furthermore, what about the people who want to opt out? We have been so conditioned to carrying ID to prove who we are and to submit to police, but this is not good for us. Having a national ID card is not a good thing. Privacy and the right to be left alone are better.

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