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Computer Age Glasnost : Satellite Links Up Americans and Soviets Via Personal Computers


At a youth club in northwest Moscow, 8-year-old Pavlik Teremetsky sat at an American-made computer helping three "Island Survivors" build shelter, hunt, fish and gather firewood for the approaching winter.

Later, he put his experiences into writing:

"I and my friends, Kirill and Misha, went on a trip around the world," he wrote. "Our ship ran aground during a bad storm and was destroyed. . . . We held on to the remnants of a mast and made it ashore. Very strange creatures live there, they look like dinosaurs."

His story was sent electronically to a microwave station outside the Soviet capital for relay via an Intelsat satellite to a ground station in the United States.

Its ultimate destination: a small public library in the San Diego suburb of Solana Beach, where a group of American children play the same game after school.

The experimental project involving Soviet and American schoolchildren is one of a series undertaken by U.S. public interest groups, peace activists, educators, academic researchers and other professionals to try to promote better East-West relations and encourage reforms through the use of personal computers.

The activities include daily exchanges of electronic mail messages between computers in the two countries over a new satellite communications network linking the United States with Moscow and other major Soviet cities.

At the same time, however, several American experts on Soviet computer technology say some of the PC enthusiasts may have naively optimistic expectations. They contend that even with more personal computers, the Soviet Union is unlikely to develop a Western-style "information society."

The United States now leads the Soviet Union about a hundredfold in numbers of personal computers--approximately 30-million PCs in this country compared to between 200,000 and 350,000 in the Soviet Union. Most Soviet PCs are installed at schools, universities, research institutes, military bases, factories and other enterprises; relatively few are in use at home.

Within the Soviet Union, PCs are extremely expensive. IBM-compatible XT clones sell for about 50,000 rubles ($80,000 at the official exchange rate) while AT clones go for up to 80,000 rubles ($130,000).

In July, the Bush Administration lifted export controls on the sale of IBM-compatible AT and similar desktop computers to the Soviet Union, after finding that such PCs were readily available in 11 countries--including Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The decision was sharply criticized by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who contended that it would provide to Moscow computers "with military applications" and thus give the Soviets "significant capabilities they do not now possess."

Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said he was in favor of lifting the export controls and "moderately optimistic" about the long-term implications of increased numbers of personal computers in the Soviet Union.

"It will contribute to the spread of democracy in the Soviet Union, mainly because a growing number of what you might call the computer literate or computer elite people will have access to a broad base of information about what's going on in the rest of the world," he said.

Brown said that "will allow them to make better judgments about the changes, political and otherwise, that will be necessary in the Soviet Union. And they'll be better prepared to act to accomplish some of these changes."

Direct, high-speed communication between computers in the United States and Soviet Union has been facilitated by the establishment early last year of the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport, which uses data channels relayed by an Intelsat satellite.

Joel Schatz, the American entrepreneur who heads the teleport, and Soviet officials signed an agreement Sept. 20 formally creating a joint venture between the San Francisco company and the Moscow-based Research Institute of Applied Automated Systems.

Schatz said that after more than four years of work, "we have solved the major technical and political problems for providing electronic mail service."

He noted that "when we first attempted to connect a computer modem to the Moscow telephone network several years ago, we needed approval from the Ministry of Communications and half a dozen additional Moscow agencies. Today, we simply use alligator clips to connect modems to phone wires without any permission."

Schatz attributed the change mainly to the increased familiarity of Soviet officials and technical personnel with electronic mail systems. Earlier, he said, "this was a new technology for them--they had never seen E-mail before."

A few computer hobbyists have begun exchanging messages via the teleport, but most of its users are companies and other organizations. Among them:

* Stanford University's Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto, which has been exchanging information with the Institute of Nuclear Science at Novosibirsk in western Siberia.

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