Mike Collier in Riga -
Tallinn is well known as the location of Nato's elite cyber-defence centre, the place Skye was born and as a city whose inhabitants seem to be in a permanent state of internet connectivity, but the Estonian capital found itself under cyber-assault from an unlikely quarter this week when the Latvian capital Riga cheekily and unilaterally named itself "European Capital of WiFi".
In a dawn operation performed with ruthless efficiency, on July 3 the Riga municipal authorities and national telecommunications company Lattelecom (51% owned by the state and 49% by Sweden's TeliaSonera) erected signs at all five major roads into Riga informing visitors of the self-awarded honour and shattering the existing entente by which everyone assumed E-stonia was the leader in all things online.
The Latvians then set about rubbing the Estonians' nose in it by pointing out that Riga has three free WiFi points per square kilometre and one free WiFi point per 750 inhabitants, compared with Tallinn's two free WiFi points per square km and one free WiFi point per 1263 inhabitants.
Riga also scoffed at a variety of other pretenders to the crown including Vienna, Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris, whose free WiFi capabilities pale in comparison with the mighty Latvian WiFi war machine. “Riga has moved ahead of other European cities for free WiFi coverage," Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs gloated at the unveiling of the signs.
Full of martial pride, Lattelecom chairman Juris Gulbis said Latvia was “on the road to becoming a WiFi suerpower” with the sixth-fastest internet in the world and more than 4,000 free WiFi points across the whole country “with new free WiFi points being added every day.”
The cheeky fait accompli by Riga is just the latest in a growing series of rivalries between the Baltic neighbours whose relatively small sizes make them a useful testing ground for IT technology, ideal for rolling out hi-tech networks with a density that would be prohibitively expensive in larger countries.
While Estonia was long held to be an internet pioneer not just in the region but worldwide, Latvia has been gaining ground rapidly in recent years, matching and in some cases surpassing its neighbour (though not in the fields of online voting or digitalisation of medical records).
And in some respects, the Riga WiFi capital claim is actually justified. Foreign journalists love to ooze admiration for the fact that Tallinn has signs all over the place directing you towards internet access points (“In Estonia, a broadband Internet connection is available everywhere,” Deutsche Welle recently gushed with more enthusiasm than accuracy), but anyone who has actually spent time in the two capitals will find it hard to deny that it is easier to get online for free in Riga than in Tallinn.
Where Estonia has the Mektory start-up incubator, Latvia has TechHub Riga. While Estonian companies have a knack for mobile apps, Latvia has become a big player, via Lattelecom, in data hosting at high-security data centres that have found a lucrative client base particularly among Russian companies keen to keep their servers and computing capability off Russian soil.
In its quarterly report titled 'The State Of The Internet' and based on first quarter of 2014 data, internet security company Akamai handed Latvia a PR coup by saying it had the sixth-fastest average internet connection speed in the world (12mbps, behind South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Switerland and the Netherlands), having increased the figure by 15% on quarter and 26% on year.
Estonia didn't even make the top ten, with the Czech Republic the only other Central and Eastern European country in the mix in 8th place (11.2mbps). Latvia also made the global top ten for average peak connection speeds (8th place) and High Broadband connectivity (6th place) with Estonia again nowhere to be seen.
bne approached various Estonian IT sources for comment and a robust rebuttal but sadly they all seemed to be on holiday – and presumably out of WiFi range...
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