2020 plan pins hopes on ‘Digital Agenda’


High-speed Internet, lower prices and unlocking the potential of unused spectrum waves for new services all feature in the EU's new strategy for growth and jobs, dubbed 'Europe 2020', according to a leaked document seen by EURACTIV.

The European Commission estimates that the EU's growth potential has been cut in half by the crisis and the new policy document speaks of both the "threat but also the opportunity" presented by emerging markets like China and India, whose ICT industries are leapfrogging the EU.

To address the EU's waning ICT influence, the EU will aim to boost levels of investment in research and development from their current 1.9% of the bloc's GDP to 3%.

More public funds

Public funding, according to the paper, will play a central role in increasing the EU's ICT competitiveness.

The document says the EU will try to tap into public money, like structural funds, to build Internet infrastructure where private investment is lacking.

With the help of the European Investment Bank, the EU will aim to leverage between €10 billion and €12 billion of additional private finance per year on the basis of €1 billion in European funds.

Industry sources warn that the Commission should not "crowd out" private investment and that the executive will have to ensure that the public authorities comply with the EU's state aid rules.

High-speed Internet

Commissioner Neelie Kroes' 'Digital Agenda' will aim to reduce barriers to high-speed Internet coverage in an effort to boost current sluggish uptake of broadband in Europe compared to other regions.

"The aim is to accelerate the roll-out of high speed Internet and to reap fully its economic and societal benefits," according to the strategy paper.

Though industry sources broadly support faster and more pervasive Internet access, the European Competitive Telecommunication Association warns that rolling out high-speed Internet should not encourage expensive and inefficient monopolies.

If history is anything to go by, future policy attempts for high-speed Internet will likely displease either small or large network operators, who have been engaged in a tug of war over access prices to Internet wires.

Both parties have also complained of legal uncertainty from the EU hampering investment in high-speed Internet.

In a speech to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona two weeks ago, Kroes tried to assure the industry that she would create "a predictable and transparent regulatory landscape".

Unlocking spectrum

The previous EU commissioner for ICT, Viviane Reding, had set the scene for a so-called Digital Dividend, whereby broadcasters' switchover from analogue to digital would unlock precious spectrum waves for more digital services.

The paper reiterates Reding's spectrum policy as a way to help the EU roll out high-speed Internet.

However, industry sources want the EU to step in before spectrum auctions at national level create even more fragmented markets.

The EU will also aim to tie up the digital market's many loose ends in online trade, the document reveals.

According to research done by the EU executive, online commerce has been stifled by payment difficulties and a subsequent lack of trust in online shopping.  

60% of online purchases failed in an EU-backed test of 11,000 separate orders on cameras, CDs, books and clothes.

An NGO for a commercially neutral internet, La Quadrature du Net, warned Kroes not to use high-speed Internet as a "justification for abandoning net neutrality, which is an essential engine for growth and competition in the digital environment," according to a statement from the group's founder, Jérémie Zimmermann.

"The Commission should set more targets for the flagship 'Digital Agenda' which are more relevant to European consumers and industry," according to a statement from the European Competitive Telecoms Association.

"Roll-out of high-speed Internet infrastructure will not achieve any meaningful benefits for Europe if it results in monopolies which charge high prices for poor services. Policymakers should aim for the construction of open networks which support competition and choice across the EU if we are to succeed on the world stage," ECTA continued.

The EU's new strategy for sustainable growth and jobs, called 'Europe 2020', comes in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.

The new strategy replaces the Lisbon Agenda, adopted in 2000, which largely failed to turn the EU into "the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010".

The new agenda puts innovation and green growth at the heart of its blueprint for competitiveness and proposes tighter monitoring of national reform programmes, one of the greatest weaknesses of the Lisbon Strategy.

During a summit on 11 February, EU leaders broadly endorsed a paper by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, which called for more rigorous implementation and monitoring procedures for the new strategy (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

It called on the Commission to come up with proposals before the next EU summit on 25-26 March.

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