Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Broadband - rural Europe

Rural Europe Left Behind on the Net

The EC says while many now have access to the Internet, 40% of Europeans do not use it at all, with urban residents more fully connected

Out of the half a billion EU citizens, more than 250 million regularly use the internet, according to newly released figures.

A European Commission report on the results so far for i2010, the EU's digital-led strategy for growth and jobs, further showed that of this number, 80 percent have access to some form of broadband connection.

Additionally, says the report—released on Friday (18 April) some 60 percent of public services in the EU are fully available online, with two thirds of schools and half of doctors making use of high-speed internet connections.

"It is a welcome change of political direction that today, information and communications technologies, the main driver of European growth, are being promoted by all 27 EU member states in their national policies," said Viviane Reding, EU information society commissioner.

"However, some parts of the EU are still lagging behind and are not fully connected," she warned.

The report notes that nearly 40 percent of Europeans do not use the internet at all. While in Denmark only 13 percent of the population do not use the internet, Romania is at the other end of the scale with 69 percent of its population offline.

The report notes that the EU-wide average for DSL broadband penetration is nearly 90 percent (DSL networks are used by 80 percent of EU broadband subscribers, and so are used as a proxy by the report's analysts for broadband more generally, although cable and wireless broadband services do also exist).

However, the report also says that figures for national broadband coverage also "hide a gap between rural and urban areas in several countries," noting that full coverage remains a challenge in a number of countries.

Greece, Slovakia, Latvia, Italy, Poland, Lithuania and Germany show "a large gap", between coverage in urban and rural areas.

Germany has a broadband coverage rate of 94 percent overall, but only 58 percent of rural areas have access to high-speed internet.

Greece, with its island geography comes in last on both scores, with under 20 percent of the country being serviced with broadband, and only ten percent having access in rural areas.

Wherever this rural-urban split happens, it is due to difficulties and increased costs involved with the provision of new technologies to areas with challenging topographies and population densities that make offering these services unattractive to companies that sell internet access.

UNI Telecom, the international union federation representing telecoms workers, argues that this is where the market liberalisation in the telecommunications sector is shown to fail, as private firms cherry-pick urban, population-dense and wealthy areas to build service infrastructure.

In the past, they argue, public service provision would have used the 'postage stamp' model where profitable urban areas subsidise the more expensive provision of service to rural areas.

The current situation however leaves rural, remote and poor areas with substandard service or even none at all, says the union. Urban zones with high concentrations of elderly citizens, who can have less of an interest in the internet, are also sometimes underserved.

A commission spokesperson conceded that this is the case, but countered that this is why EU rules on state aid permit public financing or partnerships to deliver broadband or other new technologies to such areas, ensuring universal service provision.

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