Europe will need to invest approximately €200 billion in order for citizens in its rural areas to have broadband access of at least 100 megabits per second, according to Harald Gruber, the projects head of division of digital infrastructure at the European Investment Bank (EIB).
Speaking at an event organised by EURACTIV on 9 July, Gruber emphasised the need to push the private sector in this direction.
“Clearly this is not achievable with subsidies, so you have to use public money smartly,” Gruber said, adding that it is essential to leverage private financing wherever possible.
“We have quite a long experience with financial instruments on how you can leverage private with public money, either through guarantees or other mechanisms, basically to induce the private investor to invest in infrastructure […] where for market forces alone it would not be profitable,” he said.
The EU executive has been financing projects to improve internet connection in rural areas for many years but the member states are still lagging behind. The executive now says that this financial support will continue beyond 2021.
While in urban areas on average 86% of the population has access to fast broadband, more than 40% of homes in rural areas still do not have it.
The digitisation of Europe’s agricultural sector is considered essential for the bloc to mitigate climate change, which is prioritised in the Green Deal and in the much-awaited Recovery Fund that EU leaders will discuss on Friday (17 July).
Faced with a rising digital skills gap and the brain drain of younger generations, rural areas are expected to play a critical role in Europe’s green direction.
Speaking at the same event, EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, said the executive aimed to step up action to boost broadband infrastructure in Europe’s rural areas and also further explore the potential of the so-called “smart villages”.
The Polish Commissioner emphasised the need to speed up the broadband infrastructure of Europe’s rural areas in order for smart solutions such as precision farming to be able to provide tangible results for agriculture and local societies.
“The availability of fast and reliable internet connection in rural areas is, therefore, crucial to enable that development of all future smart solutions for our agriculture and rural business,” he said.
“Fast Internet will also have to bring better information, education and health services all essential for enabling generational renewal in farming and the development of modern rural economy,” Wojciechowski said.
Smart villages, an increasingly popular concept among EU members, are also set to counter those negative trends. The executive has taken actions to boost the concept.
“I take this opportunity to announce that the second part of the action will follow. It is planned for later this year and it will further explore how smart villages can be supported,” the Commissioner said.
Gruber said there was an ongoing debate in Europe over what technology qualifies for high capacity networks infrastructure in Europe. He said for extremely remote areas, wireless connections will be the front-runner for a sustainable deployment.
“Technological neutrality is fine but at the same time, you have to keep up what is realistically performing,” he emphasised, adding that EU policy makers should make a political decision fairly quickly.
Asked about the cost of being left behind when it comes to 5G, he replied, “It is enormous”, and cited as an example the cost of those cut off from digital technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, for Huawei, all different technology options should be explored in order to come up with the best and cost-effective solution.
“There are different technological options. I think one idea could be to allow different technologies to compete and see what brings better results to give the public a clearer picture of the technological performance,” said Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the European Institutions.
Liu added that most people do not actually care about what technology is behind, but on the contrary, they focus on the ultimate outcome of the digital service.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]