How does one close the digital divide between those who have broadband and those who have not (yet!). This was the focus of the EIF breakfast debate on 16 March.The European Commission aims to have achieved total digital inclusion for all citizens by 2013 (100% broadband coverage) as one of the key goals of the Digital Agenda for Europe. How is Europe doing in accomplishing this and how will it deal with remote rural areas as part of the promise of digital inclusion?
Europe has managed to move quickly in the last year on its digital agenda in the area of broadband. Broadband penetration is steadily increasing even though there are still huge differences between for instance the Northern part of Europe and the South. Also, many people do have the ability to connect to broadband but are not doing so yet because they are often not aware that they have the option. This means that apart from the issue of connectivity there is also the challenge of stimulating demand. This can partially be achieved by governing the use of broadband into healthcare and education. Finding reasons to connect that go beyond recreation and commerce and that make society more productive as a whole should be part of the strategy to increase demand.
Consumption of broadband is steadily on the rise because of the much increased use of smart phones. This will force additional focus on wireless broadband. As the tablet pc and smart phones are gaining market share, there is an interesting and recognized pattern of desktop pc sales slowing down consistently. As a consequence, there will also have to be a renewed focus on wireless spectrum repurposing to apply it to broadband usage. In rural areas this is especially important because it is often easier to apply wireless solutions than installing a wire line infrastructure.
The USA and the EU have a shared vision in these matters: how can we deploy broadband faster as a public good? The US ambassador to the EU pointed out that one significant difference between the US and the EU is that the we Europeans do not yet have a fully developed single market place. In addition, the EU online market place is less mature in that only 30% of Europeans use the web for Internet transactions. There is huge untapped potential in that area as such.
More good news is that new technologies are now making it increasingly feasible to have broadband in rural areas. The European satellite operators unveiled that they can now offer rural broadband via satellite for a mere 25 Euro per month at a speed of 10 megabits per second. Recently for instance, 3000 people in Scotland were connected to satellite broadband as part of a government project.
According to the European Commission, focus should continue on ensuring universal broadband service in Europe. The broad consumer and public policy interest should also go well beyond the telecoms sector and policy. According to the Commission the burden for 'broadband for all' should not be exclusively put on the shoulders of the network operators. Commissioner Kroes, in support of the Digital Agenda, has been highly accommodating to broadband investment in this respect to reach the European goal more quickly. However, national and regional authorities could also contribute more with the tools at their disposal in the area of spectrum policy to assist broadband reach into areas not easily served by existing fixed technologies.