Wiring the World / THE NEW AGE OF GLOBAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS : Catching Up : Reliable Phones a Distant Dream in E. Europe : Communism's legacy is a quirky, frustrating system. Difficulties stymie nations' efforts to close the economic gap with advanced nations.

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Engineer Piotr Klonowski had cause for celebration: After 18 years of waiting, his family finally got a phone installed in its apartment.

While many parts of the world charge ahead into the telecommunications age, Poland is still struggling to provide the level of service that the United States reached in the late 1940s. Its situation is symbolic of other less-advanced countries that may bog down in the dust of the revolution.

The Polish phone system, seen by Western business people as a major obstacle to investment in the country just three years ago, has improved dramatically in a short time. Nevertheless, it remains the worst in Europe outside Albania and illustrates a gap that will widen as technologically advanced nations pull away in the new age and reap the economic benefits it will bring.

Today's telecommunications officials in Poland have inherited a phone system brought to its knees by 45 years of Communist neglect. Under the pre-1989 regimes, government phone specialists concentrated their energies on private networks for the secret police, army, Politburo and other adjuncts of the Communist apparatus. They regarded telephones as a luxury for ordinary Poles, except, of course, when the police wanted to eavesdrop on private conversations. In many East European countries, dissidents got phones when others didn't, simply so the authorities could tap them.

"For 40-something years there was no investment in telecommunications," said Jan Rogala, adviser to the president of Poland's state-owned phone company, Telekomunikacja Polska (TPSA). "We inherited a very old and scarce network of lines and mechanical exchanges, many of them hand-operated, some dating back to the 1920s," he said. "Add to this the low quality of the telephone sets themselves and the system couldn't work properly. Maybe God could tell us why it worked at all."

Divine intervention is what Poles often feel they need to get a call through. The phone system is a bundle of quirks unimaginable to anyone used to American efficiency. Making a local call often requires four or five attempts. Busy signals frequently intrude after the first two digits are dialed. It's common to pick up the phone and hear someone else's conversation. On rainy days, the system practically collapses because the copper wires are insulated with paper. Multiline phones are still rare, so it's not uncommon to see five phones on one desk in a government office.

The situation isn't much better elsewhere in the former Soviet Bloc. A Hungarian joke on the difference between Hungarians and Americans: Americans pick up a phone and dial. Hungarians pick up a phone and check to see if it's working.

But it's not funny when it presages lost opportunities to close the economic gap with the advanced nations.

Millions of East Europeans would put up with erratic service if only they had a phone. A few years ago, 2.5 million Poles were officially listed as waiting for phone service, with an average wait of eight to 10 years. To the phone company's dismay, every time it opens a new exchange the increased supply stimulates fresh demand, so it makes little progress in whittling down the waiting list.

Poland has 12 phones for every 100 people, a level that has increased 35% since 1991 but still placed the country at the bottom on the former Soviet Bloc heap in that category, and on a par with the American phones-per-100 level of 1925. "We are not so megalomaniacal as to compare ourselves to the States," laughed Rogala, the phone company's president. "We would just like to reach the level of our neighbors--the Czech Republic and the former East Germany." The goal is to provide every family in Poland with a phone by the turn of the century.

Since 1991, the phone company has spent $500 million upgrading its system with the help of AT&T;, the American giant, and Spain's Alcatel and Germany's Siemens. New digital exchanges have been installed in major cities.

The first step Poland made to meet the needs of Western businesses was the establishment, with the help of AT&T;, of Komertel, a satellite link that permits instant dialing to anywhere in the world. There are now 10,000 Komertel lines in Poland, but, alas, none are linked to the Polish domestic system.

In 1991, Paul Malcom, then marketing director for the Warsaw Marriott, had three phones on his desk. One for phoning within the hotel, another for dialing within Poland and the third for international calls. His successor, Matthew Shackel, can accomplish all three tasks with a single phone, thanks to Northern Telecom, a North American-standard system now installed at the Marriott. A rarity in the region, it even enables guests to plug fax machines and personal computers into their room phone set.

AT&T;, which employs 1,600 people in Poland, has installed 930 miles of fiber-optic cables to link Polish communications systems with the outside world. It's now possible to call directly to 115 countries from Warsaw. "The technology is improving dramatically, but it's still not all in place," AT&T; spokesman Piotr Czarnowski said of the Polish system.

Westerners doing business here agree that the situation has improved in the past few years. "It's much less of a problem than it used to be," said Alma Kadragic, owner of Alcat Communications Warsaw Ltd., a public relations company. "Companies which used to have just one line which served a phone and fax at the same time now have four or five lines."

But telecommunications, an absolute essential in Western business circles, has yet to make a cultural breakthrough here. Poles have never developed the habit of doing business over the phone. And other applications--data transmissions and toll-free 800 numbers, for instance--seem still in the realm of science fiction.

Added Piotr Rutkowski, a former adviser to the Communications Ministry: "It has been obvious for a long time that we cannot develop a modern economy unless we build a modern telecommunications network promptly," he wrote in the journal Polityka. "Without this facility, in several years we will be perceived internationally as deaf and blind, perhaps even more so than we are now." Poles, he said, "have just a vague idea about the usefulness of telefax, pager, radio-telephone, computer networks, access to databanks and similar facilities."

The phone company is trying to change that. It recently installed videophones in Warsaw's central phone office so Poles can call friends and relatives at an office in Queens, New York. But it's been slow to catch on, with just one customer a week.

More successful has been its Polpager, a radio paging system with miniature text receivers. Other advances are being made outside the phone company. The Marriott, for instance, introduced Poland's first voice-mail system in May in a bid to keep up with the demands of Western business travelers.

But a full-ranging national telecommunications system remains a distant dream, and in its absence Poland and other nations lagging behind the technology curve are likely to suffer the economic consequences.

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