Achieving Europe’s Digital Agenda by 2020 will require some Dutch courage

14 Oct 2010

Rotterdam native Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner responsible for setting out Europe’s Digital Agenda, has set some pretty tough targets for herself.

Kroes, who spoke at the 17th Annual TIF Conference at Dublin Castle this week, aims that by 2020 all European citizens will have
access to broadband speeds of 30Mbps and at least half of European households will subscribe to speeds of 100Mbps or higher.

Half of European productivity growth over the past 15 years has been driven by ICT technology and, according to Kroes, this trend will accelerate. But achieving the target of half of European households subscribing to speeds of 100Mbps must be a pipe dream if you consider that 12pc of the Japanese and 15pc of South Koreans have fibre internet connections compared with 1pc of Europeans today.

She is optimistic. “There are some reasons which may explain the different situation in South Korea and Japan (for example, in Japan and South Korea, last mile connections are far cheaper due to their use of overhead fibre cables), but I am convinced that we have to catch up. My priority is making sure everyone can connect and that our businesses have a fair chance to effectively compete around the world.

“High-speed connections make it easier to work from home and on the move. They make new interactive online services possible in different fields, including education and health.”

She says some member states will be over the 100Mbps target and hopefully few will be slightly under. Denmark, for example, plans to have all connections at 100Mbps by 2020.

“Where Ireland will fit in this will be discussed in the Digital Agenda co-ordination meetings over the next few months. However, I do not think Ireland is as badly off as the question seems to imply. Ninety-two per cent of Ireland is covered by DSL technology and 69pc use broadband subscriptions higher than 2Mbps.

“There is, for instance, a technology called VDSL, which is capable of offering 30Mbps over copper DSL lines, and many Irish users of DSL services will be able to benefit from this. It is, however, not appropriate for sparsely populated areas, where homes are far from network exchanges. Here, the solution is likely to be wireless broadband and I note that 27pc of Irish people already use high-speed wireless connections via their laptops.

“It is not for me to second guess how infrastructure will be deployed, but I would say that a national strategy is essential to ensure coverage of the more remote parts of the country and to attract private investment to the major cities,” Kroes says.

Fibre networks mean investment

Moving to fibre networks will, of course, require substantial investment. According to TIF’s own report carried out by Analysys, this could amount to €2.5bn.

“The deployment of fibre-based NGA (next-generation access) in the EU is still at a relatively early stage. However, an increasing number of national regulators have begun to consider questions of regulated access to NGA as part of their regular market reviews.

“There is a clear danger of divergences between member states’ telecoms markets. Such a situation could lead to market distortions as a result of inconsistent regulation and to uncertainty for companies investing in NGA networks.”

Kroes says that one of the objectives of the Digital Agenda was to empower all Europeans with digital skills and accessible online services.

“I want the 150 million Europeans who have never used the internet – including about one and a half million Irish citizens – to have the skills and competence they need to be part of the digital era. In addition, Europe is suffering from a growing professional ICT skills shortage and could lack the competent professionals to fill as many as 700,000 IT jobs by 2015.”

In an era of constant innovation, some of the aims of the Digital Agenda include EU-wide online medical records by 2015 and to have solid state lighting systems that use 70pc less energy than standard lighting systems.

“I think the possibilities in e-health are the most amazing and life changing. It’s not just medical records online, it’s everything: doctors using smartphones to measure patients’ heartbeats; robots and our big ambient assisted living programme to help care for the elderly; cutting out the time our medical staff spend away from patients.

“When it comes to your own health and life and death, the value of ICT really comes into focus. I want to make sure we are all benefiting from that,” Kroes adds.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years