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Access for rural areas to ICTs
Rural areas still suffer from a lack of access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). To reduce the territorial gap in this sector, Member States and their regional and local authorities are encouraged to better equip these regions. The European Union (EU) also has a role to play through regional policy and rural development policy instruments. Broadband internet access for all is of a prime importance to generate growth and employment.
Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament - Better access for rural areas to modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) [COM (2009) 103 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This Communication aims to benefit rural areas by promoting better access for them to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
A report that details exclusion
One of the main observations made by the Communication is the continued existence of the territorial divide with regard to high-speed internet access, already noted in 2006. Difficult access to ‘broadband’ (DSL) is explained in part by such factors as low density of population, remoteness or lack of competition.
The figures speak for themselves: in 2008, 41.7 % of those living in areas in the European Union with low population density had never used internet, compared with 27.4 % in heavily populated areas. These figures are explained, notably, by the fact that between 2005 and 2007, high-speed internet equipment developed more rapidly in towns than in the countryside. In December 2007, broadband coverage only extended to 70 % of rural areas in the Union as opposed to 98 % of urban areas.
Sections of the population such as the following are thus excluded from ICT access:
- farm businesses
- small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-businesses
- young people
- elderly people and disadvantaged groups
To reduce this gap between rural and urban areas, Member States, regions and local authorities should supply adequate technological equipment. Demand should be stimulated, particularly by administrations and national or local institutions. These can provide crucial services such as e-government, e-health or e-learning.
Equipping rural areas with ICT can have several advantages. For example, the development of web portals can bring a greater exposure to the region in question and therefore encourage tourism. ICT projects can also add value to local products or improve supply chains.
Projects aimed at improving access for rural areas to ICTs are based upon three aims:
- the development of equipment to access the internet;
- content creation;
- the acquisition of new skills to access the internet.
However the success of these projects depends on:
- Community financial support;
- the support of national and regional authorities;
- the involvement and cooperation of local actors;
- understanding new business opportunities and needs.
The EAFRD has a role to play in supporting the development of ICTs in rural areas through:
- the development of e-health;
- business support;
- local public services;
- mobile or youth ICT centres;
- public internet/communication points;
- broadband infrastructure.
Leader could also support ICT investments in rural areas in the fields of:
- innovative communication technologies in tourism;
- productive sectors;
- the environment and cultural assets in the fields of transnational and inter-territorial cooperation;
- access to the internet.
The Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (CMEF) for rural development (2007-2013) guides targeting, monitoring and evaluation of the situation in rural areas with regard to ICT.
Cooperation between Community policies and financing should also be developed. The cohesion policy provided for the financing of the development of ICTs with a budget amounting to EUR 15.3 billion.
Finally, the exchange of good practice is an undeniable asset in promoting access to ICT in rural areas. The Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development has, in this regard, compiled a database of 67 good ICT practices to promote innovative projects.
The European territory still has great disparities with regard to ICT access. And yet, the European Economic Recovery Plan places emphasis on the importance of high-speed internet access in rural areas to resolve certain aspects of the economic and financial crisis. Furthermore, the ‘i2010’ strategic framework aims at guaranteeing the development of the information society. The aim is to double the number of internet users amongst those currently excluded by 2010.