The European Commission has been coaxing member states to improve technology education in an effort to cut unemployment and help companies as they rely more on internet-connected programmes and machines.
That has so far been hampered by one major problem: if people don’t have access to the Internet, the bid to build a digitally literate workforce won’t pan out.
One assumption at the heart of the Commission’s month-old plans to overhaul its telecoms rules is that without fast internet all over the EU, citizens will lose out and the economy will lag. Part of the solution to that, the Commission argues, is to guarantee fast internet everywhere—and to put the fastest connections in schools, and some other major areas where people gather, like transport hubs.
The executive’s plea for better technology education is becoming desperate. In June, the executive published figures showing that nearly half of the European workforce has little or no digital skills.
Günther Oettinger, the Commissioner in charge of technology policy, admitted earlier this year that “Europe is behind” on digital skills and internet connectivity rates.
But the plans that Oettinger announced last month will mark a major leap in internet speeds over the next decade. The European Commission wants all households in Europe to have internet connections of 100 megabits per second by 2025, and set a much higher goal of gigabit-speed connections for schools by that time.
Average internet speeds in the EU hover at around 13.8 megabits per second, according to consultancy Akamei. A 2013 study from non-profit European Schoolnet indicated that average internet connections in schools around the EU ranged between two and 30 megabits per second, a fraction of the Commission’s 2025 gigabit-speed target. And that’s only counting the schools that are connected to the internet at all.
In 2013, the executive published figures that estimated around 72% of students in the EU have access to the Internet at a “place of education,” while 93% have online access at home.
“It’s clear that not every school is equally well connected,” said John Higgins, director general of DigitalEurope, an association representing tech companies including Google, IBM and Microsoft.
A separate Juncker Commission plan to provide wi-fi in cities around the EU “should help even this out so that pupils at less well-networked schools aren’t left behind in their digital skills development,” Higgins added.
Meeting those speed goals covering every household will cost roughly €500 billion, the executive has calculated. The plan to provide ultra-fast internet in primary and secondary schools was estimated to cost €46 billion, including costs to connect other sites like universities, transport hubs, hospitals and local government authorities.
If that goes according to plan, the European Commission will hit two birds with one stone: by targeting schools for high-speed internet, Europeans are more likely to have better technology education. They could also get used to fast internet connections, creating demand for similar speeds outside of schools too. The Commission hopes that would prompt telecoms companies to build faster new networks, one of the major goals underpinning the new EU telecoms policies.
Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt told EURACTIV.com that technologies like “video conferences with teachers, real-time video exploration of faraway areas or new experiences thanks to virtual reality” could be used to teach digital skills in schools.
“But this can only happen with very high-speed internet connections,” Vandystadt added.
Those technologies all take up internet bandwidth—meaning schools need higher capacity, faster connections if they want to offer what the Commission touts as good resources for teaching digital skills.
In a study published last month, the European Commission estimated that “to take full advantage of the available educational services online, a school of 20 classes with 25 students each would need speeds of 700 Mbps for simultaneous use.”
It’s unclear whether the Commission’s internet speed goals can be met in time—most of the €500 billion needed to build networks will come from private firms, although EU funds can also be used to build new internet infrastructure.
Earlier this month, German Education Minister Johanna Wanka announced a plan to spend €5 billion by 2021 to connect all German schools with broadband internet, and also provide better equipment like tablets for students.
Wanka wants schools to have gigabit-speed internet by 2030, but her plan references much slower connections of 50 megabits per second as the minimum speed needed to use education technologies “without problems”. But she warned that the German government won’t be fronting the entire bill to meet its gigabit-speed goal.
“In the future this demand will grow further—but government funds aren’t available with no limit,” a detailed plan from her ministry reads.
To cover the rest, Wanka wants private investors to step in. Her ministry will come up with special programmes to help rural areas that are harder to cover with telecoms networks.
According to the Commission's figures, there will be 756,000 unfilled jobs in Europe's tech sector by 2020. When the Commission presented a detailed ranking of digital skills and internet connectivity in February, EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger said, “Overall we have to say that Europe is behind.”