Broadband: Commission should do more to digitise European industry

Within his State of the Union 2016 address, President Junker announced a set of proposals to achieve the Gigabit Society by 2025, whereby Europe’s connectivity should reach the speed of 1 gigabit of data per second. These Commission proposals are under the responsibility of Vice President Ansip and Commssioner Oettinger. They include an initiative to equip up to 8000 local communities with Wifi connections. This initiative, known as WiFi4EU, was already welcomed by the European Digital SME Alliance as a step forward to achieve more and better Internet connectivity for all citizens and businesses.

However, the association of digital SMEs is concerned that the package proposed by the Commission will be insufficient to strengthen Europe’s connectivity and thus support the digital transformation of European industry. In particular, the package falls short in addressing Europe’s rural areas, which is where connectivity is mostly needed.

Oliver Grün, President of the European Digital SME Alliance commented the Junker’s proposals: “We believe that digitisation of European Industry is a fundamental objective that Europe must achieve in order to strengthen its competitiveness, modernize its society and achieve global leadership in several industrial sectors. Super fast Internet connectivity has become a necessary pre-requisite for companies and citizens to fully benefit from digitisation. The Commission proposals are too weak both in tackling the unconnected rural areas and in  deploying gigabit infrastructure such as optical fibers.”

The flagship initiative WIFI4EU aiming to reach 8000 local communities is not specifically designed to provide connectivity where it is needed. In fact, the Commission is proposing a voucher scheme to be taken up by local public authorities on a first in first served basis. Given the limited budget of 120 M€, there is a concrete risk that the funds will be quickly consumed by faster and more staffed administrations in big cities and wealthy areas, leaving aside the slower unconnected communities.

Regarding WIFI4EU,  Grün continued: “The Commission must understand that it is not enough to announce a great plan with ambitious objectives. The initiatives need to be well designed in order to be effective. In order to digitize traditional non-digital industries, we need to provide connectivity where those industries are; this is not always in the big cities. Most of all, Europe needs to digitize SMEs that are the engine of our economy and job creation. Small companies are everywhere, especially in the rural areas that are often insufficiently reached by broadband connectivity.

Other initiatives in Commission’s Connectivity Package focus on 5G. While it is right for Europe to invest in next generation mobile networks, we cannot hope that these will help reaching the rural and less populated areas.

It is obvious that telecom operators will not invest to scale up their systems for less populated areas, where they do not have sufficient economic return. We are concerned that the Commission proposals fail to focus on connectivity in rural areas, either by means of public wifi connections or by mobile networks. We call on the Commission and the Member States to improve the measures in order to address these problems.