Europe’s Digital Agenda – interview with Neelie Kroes

6 Oct 2010

The European Commissioner responsible for driving Europe’s digital agenda answers Siliconrepublic’s questions on Europe’s digital society. She says that interoperability, research and broadband will drive economic and social prosperity.

Kroes has set a target that by 2020 all European citizens will have access to broadband speeds of 30Mbps and that 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.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes will be speaking at next week’s 17th annual Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) conference at Dublin Castle on 12 October.

Setting the digital agenda

In setting out the Digital Agenda for Europe, which would you say are the most important objectives of the plan if we are to improve Europe’s economy and social prospects for its citizens?

The Digital Agenda for Europe is the first flagship initiative under the EU2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. This strategy is our best long-term tool to co-ordinate European efforts to get Europe’s economies back on track, and so ensure sustainable jobs and prosperity for people. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer much more than a productivity boost – they connect communities, help us to care for our elderly and when used well they also deepen our democracy

We have outlined actions that will create a digital single market, increase levels of trust and security online and bring fast and ultra-fast internet access to all. We also want to give citizens the right skills to fully participate in our digital society and use digital technologies to tackle challenges, like climate change and the ageing population. We will focus on interoperability and standards so that digital services and devices can work and communicate with each other.

Finally, we will help to boost investment in research and innovation to ensure that our best ideas reach the market.  We are taking such comprehensive action because it will take a big push to overcome obstacles that currently stop us from maximising the potential of ICT.

Putting fibre across Europe

Only 1pc of Europeans have a fibre-based internet connection compared with 12pc of the Japanese and 15pc of South Koreans. How optimistic are you that we can bring European countries up to these standards?

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 (like telemedicine that allows for remote diagnosis via the internet). They also help SMEs to lower their costs and become more competitive through access to “cloud” services, as well as making possible a new era of digital, user-controlled and high-definition video services.

And we’re taking concrete action to make this possible. At the end of September we presented several measures which will help to deliver fast and ultra-fast internet in Europe.

These include an NGA Recommendation which sets out a common EU-wide approach to regulate fibre-based networks; a radio spectrum policy proposal to accelerate the availability and efficient use of spectrum for wireless broadband; and a broadband policy communication which looks at ways to reduce investment costs and stimulate private and public investment in fast and ultra-fast broadband networks.

Nations struggling with broadband

In the Digital Agenda document you set out a target that all European citizens will have access to speeds of 30Mbps or higher, with half of households connecting to 100Mbps or higher by 2020. Some countries, like Ireland, will have geographic and competitive reasons for struggling to achieve this. How do you think this can be achieved?

The 30Mbps and 100Mbps targets are for the European Union. Some Member States will be over the target and some (hopefully few) a bit under. For example, Denmark 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.

Investing in next-generation networks

In terms of infrastructure investment, do you believe market forces should define investment in next-generation networks or do you think Member States should take a more active role?

The deployment of fibre-based NGAs 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 NGAs 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 next-generation access networks.

The Commission’s Recommendation adopted in September will bring greater consistency and clarity to telecoms regulators’ decisions, so as to encourage timely and efficient investment in NGAs throughout the EU single market while fostering competition in the market for broadband services.

The EU is helping the Member States to facilitate the deployment and the take up of fast and ultra-fast internet. It is up to them and their companies to take full advantage of it. The EU’s telecoms rules require national telecoms regulators to encourage efficient investment and promote competition. When competition is not effective, regulators can impose specific regulatory measures on dominant companies to address this market failure, following a thorough market review, as set out in the EU’s telecoms rules.

Enabling cross-border trade

With 27 different countries, each with distinctive language and cultures, how do we ensure the region can compete in the internet economy from the point of view of different goods and services, cross-border trade, etc?

We have a single market for goods and services and the internet is borderless, but the European market for online content and services is currently a patchwork of 27 different digital markets.

As a result, the 250 million Europeans who use the internet daily cannot have easy access to the online music or other content they want. And the lack of convenience is hardly an incentive for others to make full use of the internet.

One out of three internet users in Ireland buy online in their home country, but only one out of five buys from another EU Member State – they may be impeded by different laws or simply lack of trust. Such barriers need to be abolished.

To achieve a true digital single market, the Commission intends to open up access to legal online content by simplifying copyright clearance, making electronic payments and invoicing easier by completing existing projects like the Single European Payment Area, and creating an EU-wide online dispute resolution system for e-commerce transactions, so that consumers and providers know where to go if things go wrong.

Digital skills for Europe

One of the objectives of the Digital Agenda was to empower all Europeans with digital skills and accessible online services. Why is this important?

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.

The Digital Agenda proposes a series of actions to increase the ICT skills and competences of Europeans. We want to bridge the skills gap through greater co-ordination of ICT skills initiatives at Member State level, especially by proposing digital literacy and competences as a priority of the European Social Fund.

Setting targets

Different countries in Europe have different digital strategies aimed at boosting their countries’ opportunities in the digital age. How do you aim to ensure that all European nations will produce digital strategies?

We published the Digital Agenda for Europe at the end of May 2010. Shortly afterwards, experts from the European Commission went to the Member States to meet with their stakeholders. Decision-making people and civil society were very interested in the EU’s digital targets. A number of countries presented their own digital agendas and their own targets, taking into consideration the EU’s plans. I am sure that working together with the Member States we will achieve not only these targets, but in some cases will go beyond them.

Research and innovation

In terms of the technological innovations coming our way, what technologies have you most excited? For example, one aim of the Digital Agenda is to have online medical records by 2015 or to have solid state lighting systems that use 70pc less energy than standard lighting systems.

There are so many innovations it’s almost impossible to answer this one. But I would say that 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. You know, when it comes to your own health and life and death, the value of ICTs really comes into focus. I want to make sure we are all benefitting from that.

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