DG Connect director-general Robert Madelin outlined the steps Europe needs to take in terms of the digital economy to achieve its social and economic potential. Telecoms companies need less regulatory bodies to deal with if they are to invest in next-generation infrastructure and a crisis programme may be needed to get European teachers digitally literate, he said at the Digital Agenda Assembly in Dublin this week.
Madelin is director-general in charge of Communications Networks, Content and Technology and is effectively European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes’ right-hand man when it comes to achieving the broadband targets she has set for 2020 as part of the Digital Agenda for Europe.
The target for 2020 is to have internet speeds of 30Mbps or higher for all European citizens, with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.
Despite budgetary setbacks, Kroes and various governments are pressing ahead to meet the targets because the prize is a better society and economy for all citizens of Europe.
In recent weeks, it became apparent that in order to make the necessary investments happen, a single European market for telecoms is essential and as well as reducing the number of regulators in Europe, other major initiatives, such as the eradication of roaming by 2014, have emerged.
Achieving Europe’s 2020 vision
In terms of how how likely Europe is to achieve the broadband targets for 2020, Madelin pointed out that the broadband targets were just one facet of a wider-arching strategy.
“The Digital Agenda is a big agenda not all about broadband speeds but a way to achieve commitment to higher speeds,” he said, adding that it is vital we move away from governments outlining a top-down vision to instead have citizens and businesses realise what this kind of connectivity means to them.
“(Digital champion) David Puttnam was very strong on that – people have to see this is aspirational for them and possible for them – it’s about digital skills, education being digital and young, old and unemployed all getting online – and that means big demand for broadband.
“The technology is not rocket science and when there is the demand for it the investors will come quicker to the market compared to today,” he said.
Europe is unlike the US, where there is less regulation and far less operators and no cultural or language barriers to speak of.
“Let me say that I think having many different languages, cultures and countries and regions is an advantage not a disadvantage. It is clear that the regulatory environment can be a difficulty if you have to not just register with every single regulatory body in 28 countries and talk to them, you have 28 regulatory teams instead of one.
“What we are trying to propose is moving towards a single passport so bigger providers are dealing with fewer regulatory issues in fewer countries in Europe. That is quite a big step and we have to see if governments in countries are brave enough to do it but we have to drive it forward,” he said.
Leap of faith
This may sound like taking a leap of faith on the part of many governments, but Madelin countered that it is less difficult a proposition than dealing with regulatory issues in the financial sector..
“First of all, let me tackle your leap of faith point – we’ve made our proposal because the heads of government have asked us to do it. They asked us what concrete measures stand between us and a digital single market in Europe and we tell them what we think is the answer.
“We’re not making this up on the back of an envelope. There are other quite tricky sectors, especially in finance, where co-operative regulation is the norm. That doesn’t mean as we’ve seen in banking that everything is rosy but it’s not in regulatory terms a big issue.
“The other obstacles other than regulatory is a predictable revenue stream. Where do you get that? By making sure everybody wants to use the kit.”
Digital skills – a crisis programme may be needed to get teachers digitally literate
On the question of skills, there are currently around 700,00 ICT job vacancies across Europe and Madelin agrees this is a vital matter, if not the most pivotal matter, in achieving the Digital Agenda’s goals.
“We have to be conscious that this is the biggest challenge; a challenge for the whole of society, for those at school or university, employed or unemployed. And we have to be as radical in our actions as the agenda requires.
“All teachers need to get IT literate very quickly, we need a crisis programme there.
“Even the former president of the Republic of Ireland Mary McAleese was working on this yesterday, bringing out a new recommendation on better education with the Education Commissioner in Brussels. There is a willingness to dig into educational change.
“At the skills end in the labour market partly anybody can do it. A young lad can understand online video tools and help SMEs around him get online very cheaply and quickly and that doesn’t require a 10-year course.
“At other extreme, if you want to be a key player in a major international company, you have got to have the key skills and you need to commit to several years of hard training, but you can do the beginnings: coding for dummies, do it online and be proficient at fun things in a few weeks and then you build from there.”