OTE delivers tortoise pace at exorbitant prices, but Net surfers are customers worth wooing

«New technology makes life so much simpler,» burbles a slogan much in vogue. Nothing could be more applicable to the Internet, which delivers information, communication, numerous services (tickets, bookings, etc) and even allows purchases. As such, it has been called the new Garden of Eden. Nevertheless, in Greece, the gifts of this new epoch are arriving by dribs and drabs and sometimes at the cost of immense irritation. Members of the community of Internet users told us that the first reaction by a Greek seated in front of a wired computer is neither curiosity, any desire to explore, nor wonder, but anxiety. «We need to move as quickly as possible, because time is flying by and it’s not exactly cheap,» said Petros, a 22-year-old Internet user. «Not to mention that with the old type of connections, there is nothing more troublesome than trying to download a song or video. You go through hell and high water,» he said. «And when I think of the opportunities that exist abroad while we’re still struggling away with these old wrecks, I feel despair,» he finished. Fewest users in Europe The low level of service, in combination with high costs, is certainly part of the reason that Greece has the lowest Internet penetration rate in Europe. Ten years after its introduction into the country, the Internet is still much less widely used here than in other countries. According to a recent survey by V-PRC, undertaken as part of the information society program, regular Internet users over 15 years old are estimated at 1.7 million people, with another 1 million people counting as occasional users. However, although the number of Web surfers has risen over 170 percent from 2001 (from 10 percent of the population to 27 percent), this is still the lowest percentage in the EU. Nonetheless, the Internet is a daily reality for a significant segment of Greek society and especially the most active members in it, in terms of age, work and degree of sociability. This is the secret behind the sudden interest that politicians have shown in the Internet. Though not a universal problem for Greek society, as are health and education, Internet use concerns young people in particular. This is the section of the population still engaged in a quest for political identity, who are electorally fluid and who can swing the ballot one way or another. The profile of users, in more detail, is as follows: 21 percent are aged 13-17; 27 percent, 18-24; 25 percent, between 25-34; 16 percent, 35-44; while only 8 percent are aged 46-54. Three percent belongs to the 56-70 age group. Ninety to 95 percent of users said they belonged to the middle- or upper-income bracket, while 85 to 90 percent are educated to university level. Men constitute 60 percent of Internet users. Frequency of access is low in relation to Europe or America. Sixty-one percent surf the Internet two to three times a week, while 56 percent surf for less than an hour. Internet penetration in the provinces is negligible, especially in remoter areas, where it is even more necessary for reasons of distance and access to services. Organizations of Internet users and the great majority of humble cyber-surfers regard low speeds, for supposedly cheap connections, and the huge expense of modern connections that lack the quality to be found in Europe or America, as a huge problem. It got to the point that there were digital protests, in the form of a mass e-mail campaign to OTE and the government, over the high costs of services. Today, in Greece, there are three possible types of connection. The first, and the one most users have, is a simple dial-up connection, where charges are made for the time spent online. The charges are slightly above the European average, but if the fact that wages are 62 percent of the European average are taken into account, then the cost is significantly greater. ISDN dial-up connections have developed in the past few years. While much faster, ISDN connections, which are also calculated according to time spent on the Net, are much more expensive. Compared to the rest of Europe, charges in Greece are much higher. But it’s prices for ADSL connections that are justifiably considered to be truly outrageous. For Greece, they are the last word in technology. With the line open for 24 hours a day, great speeds and the capacity to make telephone calls at the same time, ADSL was a major innovation. But, until a month ago, monthly charges came to 400 euros, two to eight times higher than other EU countries and up to 10 times more expensive than those in the USA – as though Greece was a country of fabulously rich people. Even the European Commission has made representations about the unacceptable costs. Not two weeks have passed since the commissioner for telecommunications, Erki Likaanen, pointed out that «the new EU provisions should have been implemented by July 25, 2003,» and said the Commission had already started procedures against Greece. The chief culprit is OTE, which rents lines to Internet providers at exorbitant prices. This week, faced with a general outcry, OTE and other companies lowered prices, changing the way costs are calculated. Thus volume of traffic, rather than time spent surfing, will form the basis of charges. OTE, for example, beyond the fixed fee of 24.99 euros, will charge a monthly fee of 9.95 euros for 1,000 MB and 19.95 euros for 3,000 MB. Every MB above that will be charged 0.015 euros. The response of Hellas On Line was to have no fixed charge, and only one for traffic volume (0.013 euros per MB), while Forthnet is also expected to revise its prices accordingly. Nevertheless, until now, most people in Greece have accessed the Internet at work or from organizations (probably for financial reasons), thus Internet use is normally for professional or educational reasons. It is revealing that at the end of 2002, the last year for which there are data available, just 12 percent of households in the country were connected to the Internet, when the average for the EU is 43 percent.