EU moves to close urban-rural broadband divide

21 Mar 2006

In an initiative termed ‘broadband for all’, the European Commission this morning said it is mobilising telecoms legislation and structural and rural policy to stimulate broadband access across Europe, especially in rural areas. The initiative will have a particular bearing on Ireland, says an EU representative here.

“Ireland is lagging far behind in broadband penetration,” cautioned Martin Territt, director of the European Commission Representation in Ireland.

The EU has acknowledged that broadband coverage is central to fostering jobs and growth across Europe. It is understood that the EU is planning to mobilise several powerful EU instruments including telecoms rules, state aid rules, structural funds and rural developments funds.

“The commission is seeking to speed up broadband take-up, particularly for rural communities,” Territt explained.

The latest statistics show that broadband penetration in Ireland stands at just 5.34pc, in comparison with best figures of 23.79pc in the Netherlands, 22.51pc in Denmark and 20.33pc in Finland.

The EU has identified a significant urban-rural gap, with rural communities lagging behind in terms of coverage due to population scarcity and distance. This means lower returns on investment which can discourage commercial suppliers.
Public-private partnerships are necessary to increase broadband take-up. The commission recently approved a €170m public programme in Ireland — the Irish Government’s network of Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) — to promote broadband availability in areas lagging behind.

“Broadband connections must not be limited to the big cities,” said Viviane Reding, commissioner for Information Society and Media. “If the EU and its 25 member states make a clever use of all policy instruments, broadband for all Europeans is certainly not out of reach by 2010. But the time to act is now.”

This morning the commission proposed two main strands of action: strengthening national broadband strategies in order to set clear targets, reflect regional needs and make good use of EU and national funding in less-developed or rural areas; and stepping up the exchange of best practices. On the latter point, a website that will act as a meeting ground for local authorities and industry players to exchange information and gather experience is to be established. Also, a large ‘broadband for all’ conference will be held by the commission at the start of 2007 to showcase the benefits of broadband services to rural communities.

By John Kennedy