Ministers from 34 European countries have endorsed a pan-European drive to use ICT to help people overcome economic, social, educational, territorial and disability-related disadvantages. A key facet of the plan is that by 2007 recommendations will be tabled that will make web access mandatory in public procurement.
The ministers endorsed the plan at an e-inclusion event in Latvia on Wednesday. Targets include halving the gap in internet usage by groups at risk of exclusion, boosting broadband coverage in Europe to at least 90pc and making all public websites accessible by 2010.
“Many Europeans still get too little benefit from information and communication technologies and millions are at risk of being left behind,” said the EU’s Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding.
“Enabling all Europeans to participate on equal terms in the information society is not only a social necessity, it is a huge economic opportunity for industry. By implementing their Riga undertakings, European countries will take a big step towards making e-inclusion a reality.”
Lack of affordability, access, accessibility, skills and motivation are all barriers for the estimated 30-40pcof Europeans not benefiting from the information society.
Despite broadband subscriptions in Europe growing by 60pc in 2005 and overtaking the US for the first time, broadband penetration is still only at 13pc of the EU population (or about 25pc of households), with significant differences in access between rural and urban areas.
For these reasons Commissioner Reding intends to intensify the application of EU telecom rules in the next years to enhance competition in the internal market and to achieve a broadband penetration of at least 50pc of households by 2010.
In the EU, only 10pc of persons over 65 use the internet. Only around 3pc of public websites fully comply with minimum web accessibility standards, a real problem for the 15pc of the EU population with disabilities. In real terms, this means that a huge percentage of the population in the EU cannot fully participate in and contribute to social and economic life.
Reding said this undermines potentials for Europe’s labour, goods and services markets. ICT-enabled job participation can help bring excluded groups into the job market and thus make a contribution towards Europe’s 70pc labour market-participation target.
Commissioner Reding also stressed the need for public authorities at all levels, industry and users, to “work together for a coherent and systematic approach towards an inclusive, barrier-free information society”.
By John Kennedy