Europe's digital divide

Access to fast, reliable web services can have a positive impact on society and the economy. But the digital divide still exists says Ian Clark.

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Back in November last year, the UK government revealed that the EU had given the green light for its £530m rural broadband scheme. The scheme intends to bring superfast broadband to 90% of the country, whilst other areas will gain access to at least 2Mbps. Confirming the news, Culture Secretary Maria Miller announced:

"The government will not allow parts of our country to miss out on the digital age.  Britain is in a global race today. To succeed in that race we must have the infrastructure to match our aspiration, providing people who work hard with the tools they need to get on and prosper; this green light will benefit both businesses and communities across the UK."

However, whilst the UK's plans are set to proceed, the future across the EU is not quite so positive. 

Budget cuts at the EU

Earlier this month, the EU revealed that, as part of a broader strategy of cost cutting, the previously proposed €9bn budget for a broadband project called Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) will suffer cuts, with only €1bn approved. As a result, some European nations could fall dramatically behind the UK in terms of broadband connectivity. Certainly this is could have a significant impact upon those nations currently struggling as a result of the global economic climate. Those countries most in need of the supposed economic boost that comes with improved broadband performance and coverage could find themselves further cut adrift as a result of these cuts (it's worth remembering that the UK has pushed strongly for a cut in the EU budget - the cutting back of the CEF will certainly ensure a competitive advantage over its European partners). However, the broadband strategy pursued by the UK is not without its problems.

Widening access to the web

In July last year, the Communications Committee released its report on the government's broadband strategy. The report criticised the government's focus on speed rather than spread and suggested that rather than the growth of superfast broadband, it should actually focus on widening access.  Given that there are still areas across the country without access (20% of households in the UK still do not have internet access), this certainly seems like a reasonable and sensible recommendation.

In the report, the committee urged that 'above all' the policy should be driven to:

"...arrest and ultimately eliminate the digital divide, creating the opportunity to unleash its social benefits for all UK citizens."

It went on to highlight the need to address the two distinct divides, that of access but also of skills (first and second order effects). Whilst the government's strategy is dedicated to the former, it appears to be lacking in terms of the latter. If there is to be a serious effort to reduce the extent and depth of the digital divide, both first and second order effects must be addressed.  The report went on to add:

"In concrete terms, they set a course for a UK in which 'virtually all homes will have access to a minimum level of service' and in which 'superfast broadband should be available to 90% of people in each local authority area'...

"The divide inherent in these targets is, as noted above, a natural consequence of developing policy in response to the wrong question. With the proposition in mind that policy needs above all to stimulate the market to widen the provision of broadband as a service, the investment challenge is the obvious obstacle. In the stated absence of sufficient Government resources to subsidise provision in all areas which present such a challenge, it then becomes inevitable that some areas will be left behind."

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