Digital single market is one of those areas of progress that is at the same time most challenging and most rewarding. E-commerce, e-government and e-health, to name only a few, are examples of benefits that the EU Digital Single Market brings, with the potential of generating up to EUR 260 billion for the EU. Market and government services developed within the digital single market are evolving from electronic to mobile platforms and becoming increasingly ubiquitous, offering access to information and content at anytime and anywhere. All we need to communicate, shop or educate ourselves is the broadband access.
Despite the fact that 300 million EU citizens (58% of total EU population) live in rural, remote and mountainous areas, only 25% of such areas are covered by fast (download speed min. 30 Mbit/s) or ultra-fast broadband (download speed min. 100 Mbit/s), as compared to around 70% coverage in urban areas. Digital divide between urban and rural areas is therefore a fact of life. With weak or no Internet access at all, citizens in rural and remote areas are disadvantaged in terms of communication and economic opportunities.
Broadband coverage in rural areas has improved in recent years. In comparison to 2010, the rates have doubled in 2013, but the availability of broadband remains uneven. Rural areas in Malta and the Netherlands have almost 100% of broadband coverage, while Italy, Greece and Croatia are severely lagging behind. In the same period, Croatia had the overall coverage of NGA – Next Generation Access (download speed min. 30 Mbit/s) of only 30%. The biggest problem for improving the access to broadband is that the private investments are not profitable, due to population dispersion across big areas.
For the above mentioned reasons, I advocate the interests of rural areas in the European Parliament, more specifically by calling for access to high-speed broadband as the cheapest and most efficient way to close the development gap between urban and rural areas. Following that line, I have initiated a Written Declaration to support the effective implementation of high speed broadband in rural and mountain areas and development of a strategy to enhance their digital skills. European Commission has estimated around 6 billion EUR to finance high speed broadband roll-out and other digital networks. However, when asked about financial availability exclusively for rural areas and projects that are already planned, the Commission did not specify the nature of projects or how many of them will be focused on rural areas exclusively. The Commission expects to finalise the adoption of the rural development programmes by the end of 2015 so there is a danger that the whole process will be seriously delayed. With these and similar activities, I am voicing the needs and real life issues that citizens of rural, remote and mountainous areas have; and I am trying to speed up the process of ending the digital divide between them and urban areas.
This topic of broadband poverage proved to be important for the Commission as well, when through its Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe (from 6 May 2015) it confirmed the importance of investments for reducing the digital gap between urban and rural areas. Above mentioned 6 billion EUR is the estimated level of investments in digital technology and high-speed broadband, financed by the Structural and Investment funds. Because of pan-European availability of satellite broadband, every household can now have a basic broadband connection. However, these services are still relatively unknown and expensive (for high-speed unlimited broadband you will have to pay 850kn in Croatia).
If we want equal economic opportunities across EU, then we need to fight against these disparities. Structurally weaker, rural and mountainous regions could continue to lag behind more prosperous urban areas. It is important to educate the citizens at local and regional level about EU funds availability, to simplify the administrative procedures for potential investors and to make sure the public sector is supporting the high-speed broadband access in the future. The Commission has planned several initiatives in this regard, one of which is the establishment of “One stop shop”, used to educate and inform regional authorities about financing broadband from EU funds.
To reiterate my view, broadband is the simplest and cheapest way to close the development divide between rural and urban areas of the EU. Isolated citizens in rural areas, people with reduced mobility and older people are ones especially prone to use the benefits of digital single market. Inclusion of rural, remote and mountainous areas in Digital Single Market will enable to face demographic challenges of today, while at the same time offering the youth a perspective to stay in their hometowns.
I have advocated such views as a Co-Chair of Intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote areas in the European parliament. I strongly support the development of Digital Single Market in the EU and I am the initiator of Written Declaration on high-speed Internet in rural and mountainous areas as the most efficient tool for closing the gap between urban and rural areas.
By: MEP Jozo Radoš