Connecting Europe’s forgotten regions

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EU member states will renew their commitment to bridging the gap across Europe’s connectivity divides on Tuesday (9 June), as certain territories on the continent continue to be isolated from more developed parts of the bloc.

However, previous EU attempts to bridge such connectivity gaps have hit a series of obstacles as part of the coronavirus crisis in Europe, including delays to 5G spectrum auctions in countries including Spain, Austria, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

This led the EU’s digital czar, Margrethe Vestager to put pressure on EU telecoms ministers in May, telling them to “limit as much as possible” any delays to their 5G spectrum assignments.

On Tuesday, as part of an agreement on new Council conclusions on the bloc’s digital future, the “need for fast and ubiquitous connectivity” will be cited as an area which has provided resilience to more modernised areas of Europe, while at the same time exposing the digital shortfalls in less developed areas.

In order to gain a broader picture of the issue at hand here, the European Commission aims to analyse the technological clout of member states with the publication of its 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index, due for publication before the end of June.

The ‘Connectivity’ banner of the 2019 edition analysed the demand and the supply side of fixed and mobile broadband  – assessing the availability as well as the take-up of basic, fast, and ultrafast broadband. Mobile broadband examination included the availability of 4G in member states, as well as a 5G ‘readiness index.’

As part of the assessment on fixed broadband, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are the best performing EU member states, while Greece, Poland and Croatia all fall towards the bottom. For mobile broadband, meanwhile, Finland, Denmark, Latvia and Italy all perform well, while Romania and Hungary came in with the lowest scores.

The 2020 edition of the index is likely to reveal widening gaps in Europe’s connectivity, as some of the more advanced nations begin to pull away from those unable to build up their next-generation telecommunications infrastructure.

This week, Finland, with its reputable standing in technological development, has made gains on lesser developed member states, after the country’s Ministry of Transport and Communications announced the granting of 5G licences, while Nokia announced a surge in demand for their broadband services amid the uptake in digital tools during the coronavirus lockdown period.

While some EU member states storm ahead with the deployment of next-generation connectivity, it is Europe’s rural areas that are likely to suffer the most. The 2019 DESI index revealed that 13% of rural homes are not covered by any fixed network and 48% by any ‘fast’ broadband connections. And while mobile broadband has slightly increased across rural areas, it is still widely regarded as a ‘complementary’ technology rather than a like-for-like substitute.

This is a political issue; a lack of connectivity across such areas results in a lack of jobs, industrial development, less advanced public services, and lower importance of digital skills and education.

As part of the 2019 DESI report on digital inclusion and skills in Europe, the lowest ranking country overall was Bulgaria. 25% of the country’s workforce has no digital skills whatsoever, while 51% of the population have no software-related skills and 47% of internet users used computers or computerised equipment at work.

And for some in Brussels, ensuring that such lesser developed regions of Europe do not miss out on the digital transition is vital.

Prominent Bulgarian EPP MEP Eva Maydell believes this needs to change. She is co-founder of Education Bulgaria 2030, a platform that aims to analyse and respond to the challenges the education system faces in the country.

“The latest project we are involved in is with the Ministry of Education, on developing Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) environment at schools,” she told EURACTIV.

“We see a great interest from teachers and headmasters to get on board and be active, because they saw just how easy it is to implement remote online learning.”

Maydell also believes that the wider benefits of the EU single market, such as the freedom to live and work in any member state, are dependent on the uptake of digital solutions at an equal rate across the continent.

“Bridging the digital divide for me means making sure that every company or organisation has access to digital solutions and can participate in the digital economy,” she said.

“The broader benefit of this would be to empower Europeans to work and live wherever they want and that citizens will not have to leave their hometowns due to lack of opportunities,” she continued, adding that the coronavirus lockdown period has demonstrated that many businesses are agile enough to run their firms remotely, “if they have the right infrastructure, processes and skills.”

In order to make these gains and ensure a more digitally connected Europe, EURACTIV has recently learnt that the executive aims to launch a review of its state aid policy with regards to the public financing of broadband networks across EU member states, resulting in a relaxing of the 2013 Broadband Guidelines, which could allow for more pubic investment into high capacity networks.

The 2013 guidelines currently apply strict conditions to the public funding of broadband networks, in order to foster a competition-friendly environment. The Commission is currently preparing the groundwork for a public consultation and a study on the guidelines.

Moreover, the Commission’s digital strategy communication, adopted in February this year, also notes the importance of updating the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive, which aims to make broadband network deployment more cost-efficient.

And in the European Council’s Shaping Europe’s Digital Future paper set to be adopted this week, EU member states renew calls for the EU “to reduce the costs of network deployment and facilitate the roll-out of very high capacity infrastructures,” as well as support “emerging network deployment needs by the end of 2021, including the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive.”

On the revision of the broadband guidelines, member states want the Commission to introduce more flexibility “as soon as possible, in order to facilitate the necessary public financing, including for the deployment of very high capacity connectivity in rural and remote areas.”

On 5G, EU member states continue to follow divergent paths towards Commission objectives of launching 5G services in all EU member states by the end of 2020 and a ‘rapid build-up’ that will ensure “uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas and along main transport paths by 2025,” as outlined in the 2016 5G Action Plan for Europe.

In this context, EU ministers want a new Action Plan for 5G and 6G, “supported with adequate financing measures, based on funds both from the Multi-annual Financial Framework and the EU recovery fund,” which will take into account the delays in deployment across certain member states.

The €750 billion recovery fund recently put forward by the Commission will ultimately be at the behest of EU member states themselves, but the Commission has previously suggested ‘connectivity’ could be a ‘major winner’ in the new outlay.

So, while the bloc continues to wrestle with how best to chart its path out from the coronavirus outbreak, ‘connectivity’ is widely being touted as an area that could bring multiple benefits to many of Europe’s less developed regions, and could be an opportunity for them to finally mobilise resources to accelerate themselves into Europe’s digital transition.

“This is empowerment and an advantage,” MEP Maydell told EURACTIV. “Now, it is our chance to bridge the digital divide and avoid intensifying further the division lines between front runners and laggers or core members and the periphery across Europe.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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