As a boy, Mile Veljanov dreamed of running a radio station in his native Macedonia, then the southernmost of Yugoslavia's constituent republics. But after the country's breakup, the region's new leaders sent him to America to train for the even bigger job of overseeing radio communications throughout what is now the world's newest independent nation.
And he's not alone.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the spread of democracy in Latin America, more bureaucrats and business leaders from developing nations are beating a path to Washington to enroll at the U.S. Telecommunications Training Institute--a nonprofit organization that helps foreign countries improve their telephone and broadcast communications know-how.
Veljanov and his fellow students are foot soldiers in a telecommunications revolution that Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan predicted a quarter of a century ago would create a "global village."
Funded by the federal government and U.S. telecommunications firms, the USTTI program has trained more than 3,000 students from 136 countries in everything from how to use fiber-optic cable to how to design a radio broadcast studio. Although the instruction includes few courses in politics and business, the USTTI program is aimed at encouraging democratic trends throughout the world and furthering U.S. commercial interests, officials say.
The message seems to be meeting a receptive audience. Some 4,432 more applications have been received thus far in 1993--a huge demand that officials say reflects the increasingly important role nations believe communications technology is playing in encouraging economic growth and development.
"The chant used to be 'bridges and roads' in the developing world, but today, establishing a communications highway is equally if not more important in improving economic growth," said Mark S. Fowler, a former board member of USTTI who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1981 to 1987.
Among the most enthusiastic are former Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. This year, for example, Romania and Macedonia each enrolled one official in USTTI's most recent graduating class of 25 students; Hungary sent two and the Russians dispatched three of their officials.
"The help provided by USTTI in training specialists in information techniques and telecommunications for St. Petersburg at the time of transition to the market economy . . . cannot be underestimated," St. Petersburg's mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, wrote the U.S. State Department in March, encouraging officials to increase their support for the training program.
Alexei T. Korolkov, a general manager at Russia's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and one of the three Russian students, said he will use his training to help the region more quickly set up and better manage the now-divided radio airwaves of the former Soviet Union.
"Before, all of our telecommunications were handled in Moscow, but we sometimes find it is impossible to make progress" because of all the separate Russian republics' airwave management groups, Korolkov said. He also said the courses he has taken will prove helpful in improving the notoriously unreliable telephone system of the former Soviet Union.
Most USTTI students are business executives or foreign officials whose expenses are paid by the U.S. government or by private educational grants. About 800 students are trained each year. They travel widely through the United States, learning the intricacies of radio wave spectrum management from FCC officials in Washington and mastering movie cameras and sound mixing boards at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
Despite the variety of their experiences, students say it will take more than classroom training to improve telecommunications in their countries.
The Russians say they need new communications equipment to modernize their antiquated system. Others, like Renato L. Gregorio, supervising engineer at Manila Electric Co.'s telecom division in the Philippines, are trying to more efficiently use what they already have. Still others, like Veljanov, are trying to build a communications system virtually from scratch.
"Communications offers great hope to a country like mine," said Veljanov. "With better communications you can create more awareness" and help head off the kind of conflicts that have led to bloodshed in the former Yugoslav republics.
Officials of many developing nations resist adopting the U.S. telecommunications system wholesale, saying needs vary greatly from country to country.
Virtually every Hungarian household has a TV, but the nation has only about 10 telephones for every 100 residents, for example. Similarly, cellular phone service is growing more rapidly in Eastern Europe and in many Latin American countries than hard-wired residential telephone services. Finally, many officials say they don't like a lot of what they seen on American television.
"There seemed to be a lot of sex and foul language on cable TV," complained USTTI student Chelsa R. Denny, a telecommunications officer for the Ministry of Public Works in Barbados.
Established in 1982, USTTI is the brainchild of Washington lawyer Michael R. Gardner, who came up with the idea while serving as a special envoy to a 1982 telecommunications conference in Nairobi. Gardner said he proposed the training program to quell complaints that developed countries weren't sharing enough of their advanced technology.
Gardner got the federal government and U.S. telecommunications companies to contribute some $4.7 million a year to run the USTTI program as well as to offer facilities to train students. Although U.S. firms aren't allowed to push their products, they stand to benefit from any telecommunications expansion and modernization developing nations undertake.
US West, which has an executive on the USTTI board, won a multimillion-dollar contract earlier this year to build a digital cellular telephone system in Russia, said Lew Cramer, a vice president of the Englewood, Colo.-based phone company.
"We are big believers and contributors to USTTI," said Cramer. "Where we have specific financial interests we obviously want to encourage" a closer business relationship. But Cramer added that while "we are planting the seeds for the future, there is also some altruism."