How The Internet Came To Central Asia

The NATO SPS (Science for Peace and Security) programme and the US department of state have played an important role in the increase in internet accessibility in Central Asian and Caucasus countries over the past decade. Through a project commonly referred to as the “Virtual Silk Highway”, named aptly due to its proximity to the Great Silk Road Asia-Europe trade route, these organisations have provided the necessary funding to bring the internet to these previously unconnected regions. The project ultimately aims to connect eight countries. Though connectivity is the primary aim of the project, the funding bodies have also provided extra support where necessary to train staff working in IT departments at the included institutions and to build IT infrastructure.

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One of the most recent developments of the project is the SILK-Afghanistan programme, whose aim was to provide high speed connectivity to the internet, via a network of satellites and fibre optics, to a large number of Afghan universities and select government institutions. The programme ultimately allowed the Afghan government to enhance their educational system and improve access to research and development. The programme took full effect at Kabul University, Afghanistan, in 2006 and since this date further expansion has stretched to other provinces.

The immediate benefits of this project’s widespread influence bring improved educational tools and wider access to research and development.

The internet has also provided Central Asia with a boost to the economy, as internet cafes have rapidly become a profitable business, and one which is fairly easy to establish and run. They can often charge high connection prices as access to the internet is not as readily available as it is in many western countries. As many people in poorer areas cannot afford to own a personal computer, these establishments may monopolise on the public’s desire for internet access and wider communication.
Furthermore, a café’s hourly rate for internet access is often a reflection of the government policies on internet use in a particular country. In Uzbekistan, where website restrictions are relatively relaxed, some cafes charge as little as $0.50 an hour; however in Turkmenistan, where the internet is strictly monitored, some charge up to $4, where the average monthly salary is only $70.

Despite the pledge to increase connectivity and education through internet use, access to the internet in Central Asia is often criticised for being monitored strictly by the region's government. The aforementioned internet cafes are often targeted with routine inspections by authorities, to ensure that patrons are not accessing prohibited websites. Additionally, home access requires official authorisation and any website portraying anti-government propaganda, independent news or opposing party ideals are restricted.

Although certain regions deny access to these websites, the block only usually extends to pornographic content and political information, and despite these enforcements, the internet is expanding rapidly in Central Asia. The number of ISP addresses registered in Uzbekistan, for example, rose from 25 to 539 in the period between 1999 and 2005. Numbers are undoubtedly higher now.

One of the biggest obstacles to wider internet access in Central Asia remains the lack of those possessing a computer in their household. Only a very small minority of households have their own computer, whereas others must rely on internet cafes, offices or educational institutions. Furthermore, whereas NATO's project has extended access to major institutions and cities, in many of the smaller villages in Central Asia the internet still doesn't exist
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