Bridging the ‘digital divide’: EU policies

Widespread access to modern information and communication technologies (internet, TV, telephone) is considered to be a driving factor behind the EU’s efforts to become the world’s leading knowledge-based economy (Lisbon strategy). However, poverty or lack of basic ICT skills still prevent this ambition from turning into reality, while at the same time effectively barring businesses from potentially highly lucrative markets in the EU-15 as well as in the new member states. Addressing this so-called ‘digital divide’ could therefore become a key element in the EU’s Lisbon strategy for long-term economic growth.

Access to information and communication resources (the internet, but also telephone or TV) is increasingly considered as a basic social need in modern, highly developed societies. When, for any reason, a category of people are excluded from such access, the term 'digital divide' is often used. 

At the Lisbon Council in 2000, EU heads of states and government pledged to turn the EU into the world's leading knowledge-based economy. The Lisbon strategy's social pillar tries to ensure every citizen has access to the information society and to fully exploit Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to prevent people from being excluded.

This ambition was reflected in the the two successive e-Europe action plans that tried to address the challenge of bringing every EU citizen into the information society (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on e-Europe). However, the plan is seldom binding and member states are legally committed only by the provisions of the new regulatory framework for electronic communications relating to universal access and users' rights (see EURACTIV LinksDossier: Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications). Other provisions of the framework deal with the issue of prices and general accessibility of services. 

Within the EU, the main factors driving people out the information society are:

  • Poverty and social exclusion
  • Education and skills gap in ICT (digital literacy)
  • Poor or no access to the internet in remote areas or regions
  • Personal factors such as age, gender or disability  

The EU's enlargement on 1 May 2004 has tended to exacerbate these disparities, with populations in the ten new member states having on average lower income levels and lower ICT penetration rates. According to Commission figures, the income, rural, educational and age gaps are all greater in the ten new member states than in the former EU-15. 

A survey conducted in June 2003 in new member states' households shows quite startling results in this respect. On average, eleven per cent said they had no idea what the internet actually was and 23 per cent confessed they did not know how to use a computer. Results are more encouraging for businesses. According to a survey conducted in November 2003 by e-business watch, the gap between the EU-15 and the new member states in terms of internet connections or even broadband access is much smaller than expected. Estonian businesses for instance, have the same rate of connection to very high-speed networks (2Mbps - two megabits per second) as France, Germany and the UK. The only significant differences noted in the report are for more sophisticated e-business applications such as online procurement and supply chain integration that require back-office re-organisation (see EURACTIV, 2 March 2004).

E-Europe's initiatives to narrow the digital divide are referred to as 'e-inclusion' policies. These focus on the social and regional aspects but also on technological aspects such as the provision of ICT services on multiple devices or platforms other than the personal computer (digital TV, satellite, third generation mobile phones, etc.)

Regional aspects have been a particular focus of attention with innovative actions being launched to cover remote and under-served areas. Satellite communications currently seem to emerge as a possible 'silver bullet' to bridge the regional aspects of the digital divide and provide under-served areas with high-speed internet connections (broadband). The Commission's recent white paper on space policy has confirmed this ambition.

To further encourage the roll-out of the internet in under-served regions, the Commission has - as an exception to competition law - allowed member states to use structural funds for broadband deployment. An online Digital Divide Forum was set up in June 2004 to look into the issue of access to regions where market forces alone are unable to provide broadband access.

Other specific issues in the e-inclusion debate include:

  • Linking e-skills training and social inclusion: Access is not enough, e-skills training should help create more and better jobs.
  • International aspects: immigration policy to make up for the shortage of trained professionals; Outsourcing of European companies' ICT-related services to low-wage countries.
  • Recognition of ICT skills certification across the board by EU governments, education professionals and industry players.
  • State funding distorting competition in the eLearning market.
  • Research and development (R&D) aspects. 

An e-skills forum organised in September 2004 by the Commission concluded on a shared vision regarding ICT skills by both the public and private sectors. The conclusions identified a set of six priority actions, including the promotion of multi-stakeholder partnerships (broader than public-private ones). The forum recognised the importance of the private sector in developing e-skills certification. 

The eSkills Certifications Consortium (eSCC), an industry alliance for ICT skills, promotes the establishment of Europe-wide standards to address e-skills shortages and basic digital literacy in Europe. "Only if industry, social partners and the public sector can work together will Europe’s workforce and citizens be equipped for life in a knowledge society," said Jacek Murawski of CISCO. The eSCC includes the likes of Certiport, CompTIA, Cisco, ECDL Foundation and Microsoft.

The eLearning Industry Group (eLIG) believes that mass diffusion and use of ICT will be achieved only if driven by users. eLIG wants to foster and promote a technology environment that will be attractive to users and to content and service providers to create a self-reinforcing loop between users and providers.

In an interview with EURACTIV, Microsoft's Vice-President for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Jan Muehlfeit, said he expected cohesion funds and e-government projects to help bridge the ICT gap and pinned his hopes on opportunities offered by small and medium sized businesses to explore new markets in the former Eastern bloc. Solutions, he said, include increasing ICT penetration in education, deregulating the telecoms industry and increasing broadband penetration (see the full interview).

On 13 September 2006, the Commission presented a Communication on eAccessibility with a focus on age and disability.

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