Trip report for NATO Advanced Networking Workshop, Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1999

October 11-25, 1999

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Trip Report

Traveler Roger L. A. Cottrell, Assistant Director SLAC Computing Services, SLAC, POB 4349, Stanford University, California 94309
Dates of Trip October 11-October 19, 1999
Purpose of Visit To understand the needs for Internet access in the South Caucasus region, and to present a talk on Internet Quality of Service


Most of this trip was funded and sponsored by NATO in order to attend the NATO Advanced Networking Workshop in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I also gave a talk on Internet Quality of Service. On the way back from Georgia I spent time in England and visited the Rutherford Appleton Labs in Didcot and Daresbury, the UKERNA organization at Didcot and the DANTE organization at Cambridge. The visits in England are reported elsewhere in Visit to England


The purpose of this network was to understand the Internet needs for the Caucasus region, and to help the networking leaders in this region create proposals to NATO for funding to provide Internet connectivity to and within these regions. This region comprises the countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Besides NATO's military role it also has a role to promote scientific research in former Eastern block countries. In previous workshops they have successfully worked with countries such as the Baltic States, the Balkans, Czech republic and Poland to provide connectivity for the national research Networks (NRNs) in those countries.

There were about 70 attendees, the biggest contingents being from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, followed by Russia and in particular several of the republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan etc. who also want to get improved Internet access. In addition there were invitees from the Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, i.e countries who have already worked with NATO and share some common history (e.g. part of former Eastern block, have been through independence movements and in some cases revolutions and wars, and in the case of the Balkan countries have a similar mountainous geography. All these countries have also suffered from a lack of infrastructure (phone and communications in particular). In addition there were NATO advisers from countries who have close Internet ties to the former eastern block (e.g. Scandinavia with ties to the Baltic states, Austria with ties to the Balkans and Germany with ties to Russia). Finally two of us were invited from the US to provide technical and background information on the current state of the Internet etc., and there were a few NATO people present.

The meeting was held in a conference center about 10 miles South of Tbilisi and about 1500 feet up in the mountains. Internet connectivity to the conference center was provided by radio modems the HEP Institute in Tbilisi which has an earth station with a link to DESY in Germany. The connectivity was poor for the 1st two days due to radio interference between the conference center and the Institute, but on the third was much improved. It was very good for email and web access. There were 5 PCs provided with access plus 3 spare taps for laptops.

The conference was very well organized, the accomodation was Spartan (e.g. cold showers), the surroundings were beautiful, everyone was very friendly, and there was a genuine sense of working together to improve things.

Common problems

The lack of a good phone infrastructure is a mjor problem to deployment within the countries. It is hard to get commerce interested since the basic infratructure for ecommerce is lacking (low use of debit/credit cards, dial up phone in people's homes). It is hard to make a business case (for example Microsft support for the Georgian alphabet is very poor) since the countries are often small (Georgia has about 5M inhabitants, and 1.5 M live in Tbilisi), and the inhabitants are generally poor and so can't afford PCs or Internet connections, for example a typical disposable income is under $500/year. There are some cybercafe's in some big cities which may be subsidized

In addition the governments of the countries are only just understanding the importance of the Internet. The telecommunications industry is only beginning to privatize (for example in Armenia a 64kbps leased line was $3K/month), there is almost no availability of risk capital. The governments appear to be doing little to court foreign investments in high tech areas (needs government commitment to long term Internet development plans). They have many other concerns, e.g. earthquake damages, people at war within the countries (e.g. the S. Ossetia and Abhazia regions of Georgia), or in neighboring countries (e.g. Chechnia), there is still instability, there are lots of refugees (e.g. the 2 largest ~ 15 story Intourist hotels in Tbilisi are occupied with refugees). In some cases there is infighting between ministries as to who should control the Internet, and in some cases things are said to be corrupt.


DESY has been a major driving player in providing connectivity to many former Eastern block countries. This has been done to provide access to high energy physicists in the countries and is provided by means of satellite connections to various regions of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. These links to HEP institutes in the countries often provide the initial Internet access for the NRN

The main sources of networking grants are from NATO and George Soros' Open Society. Often the thrust for connectivity come from the bottom from enthusiasts who recognize the criticality of the Internet to help in moving the country forward and in making information easily available. Not only will this eventually help commerce etc., but in the shorter term people I talked to feel the free flow of information will help bring peace and stability. An example of the importance people associate with the Internet was one representative drove several hundreds of miles over very poor roads from Grozny, Chechnia to Tbilisi to attend the conference despite a war with Russia where the Russians have committed over 100,000 troops plus tanks and airplanes and were within miles of Grozny.

There are fiber links being planned or going in to connect up countries in the region. One fiber link is going along the Trans-Siberian railroad, the TAE is going through Turkey and Iran to Shanghai, and another will skirt the Black Sea and go through Georgia and Armenia to the Caspian Sea.

There are 3 major technical problems:

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