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Riding Santa's Wave, Remote Artic North Aiming for High-Tech Fast Lane

Chilly temperatures and a sparse population haven’t stopped the Finnish province of Lapland – dubbed Santa’s true home – from pushing to become a high-tech hub.

Associated Press Writer

ROVANIEMI, Finland (AP) – Spurred by the popularity of Santa Claus who attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually to this remote Arctic region, the Finnish province of Lapland has set its sights on becoming a northern high-tech nucleus.

But it may be difficult in the sparsely populated area devoid of large urban communities, where the 200,000 reindeer roaming the tundra outnumber the inhabitants.

This town of 35,000, just south of the Arctic Circle, has seen strong growth in recent decades thanks largely to efforts by local decision-makers and the Finnish government in promoting the region as Santa’s ”real home.”

”Naturally, we do ride on Santa’s fame and take advantage of it but really we don’t have much to do with him,” said Eila Linna, head of a regional business development agency.

Making use of growth generated by millions of visitors since Santa’s Village opened some 20 years ago, the agency has promoted getting Internet broadband to remote villages in the vast region.

Earlier this year, it helped launch an alert system advising mobile phone users when the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are visible – believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

The polar lights – caused by discharges of electricity from the sun – are often visible in Rovaniemi on clear nights from October to March. Sensors pick up the light and transfer the information to a local laboratory which automatically sends a message to mobile subscribers.

”The service is in real-time and the Japanese especially love it,” said Miikka Raulo, director of the Center of Expertise for the Experience Industry. ”They rent mobile phones on arrival with great hopes of seeing the lights, and they haven’t been disappointed.”

Tourism, that last year generated some euro350 million (US$460 million), remains the fastest growing sector providing work for more than 75 percent of the labor force in and around Rovaniemi, 830 kilometers (510 miles) north of the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Only 23 percent earn their livelihood from production and processing.

Looking beyond travel, local government and businesses want to provide more opportunities by spending more than euro1 million (US$1.4 million) for increasing broadband access to 95 percent of Lapland’s 190,000 inhabitants from the current 80 percent – already a high percent in a population spread out among 300 villages in an area which makes up for almost a third of Finland.

Inspired by a government program to provide broadband to about half of Finland’s 2.4 million households by the end of 2005 and fierce competition by service providers, the number of subscribers in Lapland has jumped from 13 percent of all households in May to more than 30 percent at the end of November, and it’s growing.

But project manager Arto Leppajarvi concedes the target might prove difficult.

“You have to remember that Lapland is a very challenging environment. People are spread out far and wide and this discourages operators,” said Leppajarvi, who heads the province’s Internet project.

But for small communities wireless technology is becoming increasing important for remote areas, he said.

“This is a lifeline for them, especially with technology improving all the while,” Leppajarvi said. “We are putting a lot of effort into this, and Rovaniemi is pushing ahead as big regional IT center.”

And planners are banking on local interest.

Mobile phones operating on GSM, or Global System of Mobile communications, technology and GPRS (General Packet Radio System) can be used all over Lapland, with enhanced EDGE and wireless hotspots available in some built-up areas.

The town also has one of the world’s most northerly centers of learning – the University of Lapland – which has a separate department, the Arctic Center, that specializes in the local environment, globalization and ethnic minorities.

“It’s by no means a far-fetched concept to make Rovaniemi a high-tech center,” said Timo Koivuranta, a research professor at the center. “They are building on a good base, and in this wireless day and age of not physically having to work at any one spot, this is as good a place as any.”

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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