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Information and communication technology for an inclusive society – Frequently asked questions

European Commission - MEMO/06/237   12/06/2006

Other available languages: none

MEMO/06/237

Brussels, 12 June 2006

[Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED ]

Information and communication technology for an inclusive society – Frequently asked questions

What does "e-Inclusion" mean?

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are becoming key enablers of modern life. They are used at work, in day-to-day relationships, in dealing with public services as well as in culture, entertainment, leisure and for community and political participation. In this context, eInclusion is basically about using ICTs to enhance social inclusion in a knowledge society, and about barrier-free ICTs that are usable by all. Going beyond access to ICT tools and services and even beyond digital literacy, an e-Inclusion policy should focus on people’s empowerment and participation in the knowledge society and economy.

Easy access to (ICT) is a prerequisite for participation. Facilitating this access entails, inter alia, removing barriers, making ICT tools easier for everyone to use, and encouraging people to use them by raising awareness of their economic and social benefits. Furthermore, e-Inclusion also refers to the extent to which ICT helps to equalise and promote participation in society at all levels (i.e. social relationships, work, culture, political participation, etc.).

What is the Riga Ministerial Declaration about?

By signing the Riga Ministerial Declaration (see IP/06/769), 34 European countries have expressed their strong commitment to promoting an inclusive and barrier-free Information Society which fosters social and economic inclusion. Ministers called upon the European Commission and other stakeholders to work together to promote an inclusive information society over the coming years. A major European eInclusion initiative is planned for 2008 as part of "i2010", the digital economy component of the EU's revised "Lisbon" strategy for growth and jobs (see IP/05/643).

The Riga Ministerial Declaration commits signing countries to a number of specific targets:

  • to significantly reduce regional disparities in internet access across the EU, increase the availability of broadband (coverage) in under-served locations, and aim for broadband coverage to reach at least 90% of the EU population by 2010,
  • halve the gap in Internet usage by 2010 for groups at risk of exclusion, such as older people, people with disabilities, women, and unemployed persons,
  • assess (by 2007) the need for new approaches (including legislation and public procurement) to ensure access for disabled users to Information Society tools and services, and
  • to ensure compliance of 100% of public websites to common standard and practices for web accessibility by 2010.

How big is the e-Inclusion problem?

Around 30-40% (and on some estimates, even 50%) of the EU population still reap few or no benefits from ICT. The major reasons for this are lack of access to terminals and networks, limited accessibility of (easy-to-use) technologies, poor affordability, insufficient motivation, limited ICT skills and competences, and different generational attitudes to technologies.

  • Only 16% of persons over 55 have Internet access.
  • Only around 3% of public web sites fully comply with W3C eAccessibility standards (http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php), thus hindering access to web content and services for people with disabilities (some 15% of the EU population).
  • In October 2005, Europe overtook the USA in terms of the number of broadband lines (reaching 60 million), with broadband subscriptions growing by 60%. However, on average only 13% of the EU population can access broadband services, still far behind the world’s leader (25.5% in South Korea), even though the best performing EU countries (Denmark, Netherlands, Finland) already match this result.

The groups most at risk of exclusion from the information society are the elderly, those not in the labour force and those with a low education. Internet usage rates are also lower amongst women and those living in sparsely populated areas, but these differences are likely to correlate closely with those relating to work, i.e. more women are not in the labour force and make up a higher proportion of those of post-retirement age. Low usage in sparsely populated areas may be partly due to higher rates of unemployment and specific geographic factors.

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Reasons for Not Having Internet Access (% of all respondents per age group)

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a. ICT and the ageing society

Europe's population is ageing fast. The number of people over 50 will rise by 35% between 2005 and 2050. Although the older age group is not a homogenous one in terms of education, income, or even the types of disabilities often associated with age, older people as a group are at the greatest risk of being excluded from the benefits of the Information Society.

A recent study, for example, found that more than 60% of persons over 50 in Europe feel that their needs are not adequately addressed by current ICT equipment and services. Without a higher level of participation of the elder population in employment, and without better tailored and more effective social services, for the young and the elderly, these trends will put serious pressure on Europe's social models and public finances.

Functional restrictions among the EU 50+ population by computer involvement (in %)

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However, involving the elderly in the Information Society also represents a substantial economic opportunity. A recent US study found that: "the potential cumulative economic benefit of policies for active ageing, independent living (including eHealth) and accessibility is comparable to what the federal government is likely to spend on homeland security measures during the next 25 years (an estimated $620 billion)" (Source: New Millennium Research Council, 2005).


[Graphic in PDF & Word format]

b. Gaps in ICT access and use

In 2005, internet users in urban areas made up 49% of the population vs. 35% in rural areas. In 2005, high-speed broadband connections were available to about 60% of businesses and households in the remote and rural areas of the EU15, and to more than 90% in the urban areas, but the gap is higher in the new Member States. On average, broadband roll-out currently excludes about 13% of EU15 population. This “broadband gap” may well prove to be even larger in the new Member States, for which reliable data will be available later this year.

In some Member States – the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden – broadband already accounts for 20% of all internet connections or more. But in others, including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and all of the new EU Member States, except Estonia, broadband's share is still below 10%. Even important economies such as Germany are just average performers.

By 2010, if the EU's “Broadband for all” policy is supported by all 25 EU Member States, Europe should be able to get close to 100% broadband coverage (see MEMO/06/132).

c. eAccessibility and usability

The total number of frail and disabled persons is likely to rise in the future because of Europe’s rising ageing population. The OECD predicts for instance, that by 2020, the number of older people living in institutions will have increased by 74% in Japan, 61% in Canada, 33% in the US, 26% in Germany, 29% in France, 27% in Sweden and 18% in the UK. (Source: OECD).

The numbers of disabled people living at home are also set to grow fast. Between 2000 and 2020 they are expected to rise by 74% in Japan, 62% in Canada, 54% in France, 41% in the US and 29% in Sweden (source: Senior Watch study - www.seniorwatch.de).

In September 2005, the European Commission adopted a Communication on eAccessibility (see IP/05/1144), incorporating the key findings of a public consultation held in 2005. This showed that there is a lack of consistency regarding the accessibility of ICT products and services in Europe, and that e-Accessibility should therefore remain a priority of the EU’s ICT policies. It advocates more intensive use of three policy levers available to Member States:

  • improving the consistency of accessibility requirements in public procurement contracts in the ICT domain,
  • exploring the possible benefits of certification schemes for accessible products and services, and
  • making better use of the “eAccessibility potential” of existing legislation, notably in the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications.

The Information Society Technologies (IST) section of the EU's 6th Research Framework Programme (FP6) allocated a total of €69 million to 26 projects concerned with eAccessibility and the development of products and services for people with cognitive disabilities, as well as projects dedicated to independent living and other aspects of e-inclusion. The EU's focus on inclusion for online public services has been strengthened for the projects in the eTEN programme and will play an equally important role in the EU’s future initiatives in service deployment, such as those supported by the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP see IP/06/716).

d. Inclusive e-Government

Public services are becoming ever more widely available and sophisticated. By October 2004, 84% of basic public services for citizens and businesses were available online. The sophistication of online public services has also increased and 40% of services are now fully interactive. The impact of such strategies is visible: half of companies and one citizen in five have obtained online information on public services and use is growing fast among companies (Source: Eurostat report 35/2005, Oct 2005 - see STAT/05/138).

EU Member States’ reforms of public finances also aim, over the longer term, to control increases in, and improve the quality of spending, against the background of globalisation and population ageing. The European population is getting older, life expectancy continues to increase and net immigration is likely to continue. These structural trends will increase the demand for social services in areas like health or education. The benefits of ICT for these sectors have been demonstrated.

e-Government and eHealth policies have built on the political consensus reached in previous years at EU level. This consensus was expressed in the 2004 e-Health Action Plan 33 (see IP/03/425) and the 2006 e-Government Action Plan 34 (see IP/06/523).

The adoption of the eHealth Action Plan in 2004 (see IP/04/580 ) and progress in its implementation represent significant achievements in speeding up the reform of health systems.

At EU level, studies were commissioned in best practice, interoperability, patient identifiers, legal issues, and labelling and certification. By the end of 2005, several EU Member States had announced e-Health reform roadmaps, including major e-Health applications and services deployment.

The eHealth Ministerial Conference which took place in May 2006 in Malaga recommended paying more attention to electronic tools for independent living, and better healthcare for older people. In addition, user friendly information in now being made available on a new EU Public Health Portal (see IP/06/597).

e. Digital literacy and competences. Capitalising on cultural diversity

Cultural diversity in Europe offers significant opportunities ranging from enriched economic and social networks to a more creative and innovative economy. Information and communication technologies (ICT) play an increasingly important role in fostering social integration and cultural diversity.

EU Member States have agreed to take measures, by 2008, to raise awareness of ICT-enabled opportunities, e-skills and confidence in ICT and put in place digital literacy training actions at national, regional or local level. Such schemes will be tailored to the needs of the unemployed, immigrants, people with low education levels, people with disabilities, and the elderly and will be supported by certification schemes attesting ICT competence.

By 2010, digital literacy gaps between these groups and the average population should be halved.

What can the European Commission do to improve digital inclusion?

The Commission is preparing a set of specific initiatives to this end in line with the Ministerial Declaration, which will form part of a wider EU Initiative on e-Inclusion in 2008. The policy framework for this will be presented by an e-inclusion Communication in 2007.

Already in 2006, the Commission will propose actions on ICT and the Ageing Society. These actions will deal with:

  • living independently longer in one’s preferred environment e.g. at home. This will become an EU "flagship" initiative on "independent living in an ageing society" in 2006,
  • active ageing in work – staying productive in high-quality work, and
  • ICT for better social inclusion – continuing to play a full part in society.

The Commission is working to ensure that existing legislation on ICT accessibility is used to greater effect, and is in the meantime investigating whether there is a need to further strengthen legislation on the accessibility of digital technology.

At European level, the Commission will support the concept of market-led initiatives for e-Inclusion, by encouraging large-scale projects within the new Competitiveness and Innovation programme in 2008 (see IP/06/716) and promoting e-inclusion research through the EU's seventh Research Framework Programme.

The Commission is also determined to work together with Member States on an ICT research programme that makes the daily living and work environment smarter and more supportive, particularly for people who are losing some of their functional or cognitive abilities (“Ambient Assistive Living”). A special - so far little used - article of the Treaty allows close cooperation between Member States to advance this important area for research and innovation (Article 169).

Fostering the exchange of experiences among Member States in public-private-partnership schemes and in public funding for e-Inclusion initiatives (such as those targeting less-favoured individuals and areas for widespread, affordable internet access, particularly in remote, rural and economically disadvantaged locations) will be crucial to replicating successful examples.

The Commission has also proposed to help bridge the broadband gap by strengthening national broadband strategies that should set clear targets and reflect regional needs (see IP/06/340).

How realistic are EC policies in promoting broadband connections and the use of electronic signatures given that in practice, internet access, in Latvia for example, is very low?

The Commission considers widespread broadband coverage to be crucial in fostering growth and jobs. This is why the telecoms legislation, structural, agricultural and rural policy instruments of the EU can all be used in Latvia, to help speed up the deployment of broadband internet access networks, particularly in less-developed areas of the country (See IP/06/340).

EU Structural Funds can play a vital role in stimulating initial investments in broadband infrastructure and services, boosting competitiveness and innovation and helping all regions of Latvia to participate fully in the knowledge economy.

Overall, Europe’s Regional Development Fund is worth €70 billion (2007-2013), in addition to funding provided by the national governments themselves. European regional funding is increasingly focused on creating new business opportunities in the countryside. There is a particularly strong concentration on investment in broadband, and in information and communication technologies. Projects financed under Europe’s LEADER initiative currently extend from the north of Scotland to the south of Spain.

Latvia promotes the deployment of broadband infrastructure as a part of its own rural development strategy. For example, the European Commission has just endorsed under EC Treaty state aid rules a broadband initiative by the Latvian authorities. This measure will bring broadband communications to regions of the country where broadband is not widely available at the moment, so as to allow citizens and businesses to exploit the benefits of broadband technology. The Commission concluded that the aid was not likely to cause undue distortion of competition within the Single Market and was therefore compatible with EC Treaty state aid rules (Article 87) (see IP/06/755).

How does the European Commission plan to address the problem of lack of appropriate infrastructure needed for the use of modern technologies in remote or rural areas of the EU?

EU state aid rules: the Commission has a positive stance regarding the application of state aid rules to public funding for broadband. A number of broadband projects were approved over the past year after the Commission concluded either that the aid was compatible with state aid rules (projects in UK (IP/04/1371, IP/05/646, IP/05/1231), Spain (IP/05/398), Austria, Ireland or that there was no state aid involved (two decisions in France – see IP/04/1371 and IP/05/530). Only once has the Commission opened a formal investigation procedure (Broadband Appingedam, Netherlands, October 2005 – see IP/05/1331) In Appingedam, the public authorities intended to support the deployment of an additional network where broadband services are already provided by market players over two existing networks.

For example, on 8 March 2006, the Commission authorised a €170 million programme, co-financed through Structural Funds, to boost broadband availability in Ireland. In partnership with the local authorities, the Irish Government decided to build open fibre-optic networks (“Metropolitan Area Networks”) in over 120 towns where such infrastructure is not supplied by market players (see IP/06/284).

EU structural funds: the Commission is approving structural funds to co-finance a €210 million project on “Broadband Access Development in Underserved Greek Territories”. The project aims to boost access to broadband infrastructure and to stimulate demand. Greece lags far behind other EU Member States in broadband rollout and take-up, partly because of lack of competition. The EU’s electronic communications rules, which require Member States to open up markets to new entrants, were only recently transposed into Greek national law.

EU rural development: EU rural development policy has been experimenting with a wider use of ICT to promote growth and employment in rural areas. For example the Leader Community Initiative, now being mainstreamed, promotes a virtual learning centre (Breadalbane project) in Scotland’s Highlands and in Andalusia (with the @cerca project). Both projects seek to develop ICT-based local development strategies, reducing this way the digital divide and improving capabilities and employment opportunities. ICT has also greatly expanded the market in rural tourism activities.

Has the European Commission properly analysed the situation of internet access and infrastructure in Latvia, too? 

Yes, but data on broadband coverage in each of the new Member States is not readily comparable. In Latvia, the broadband market is just starting to develop but is restricted by lower levels of PC and telephone line penetration. In other countries, TV cable networks are widely deployed and represent an important alternative to upgrading the telephone network. While broadband rollout in the EU15 is mostly based on upgrading existing networks, it is reasonable to expect a different pattern of development in the new Member States. In these countries there is a clear trend towards take-up of mobile instead of fixed telephones. Although people are likely to retain a fixed line for internet access when they already have a fixed telephone, wireless technology will probably play a bigger role in providing broadband services to people who at present have only a mobile phone.

It is being recognised that the telephone market in Latvia is liberalised. However in practice, Lattelecom is still a monopoly, since it owns the infrastructure used by other telephone operators. How does the European Commission see this situation in the light of ensuring truly free market?

The Latvian market for electronic communications was liberalised even before Latvia's EU accession and has been subject to EU rules on electronic communications since 1 May 2004. Substantial progress towards a truly competitive environment with regard to both fixed voice and data services has been made. While it is true that Lattelekom – the incumbent operator in which the Latvian government retains a 51% shareholding – still owns a large part of the infrastructure that is used by all market players (unlike the BT model of structural separation adopted in the UK), alternative providers do enjoy non-discriminatory and price-regulated access to these necessary assets. Price and access regulation and other regulatory remedies are decided by the Latvian regulator in cooperation with the European Commission. Under EU rules, this market review procedure has already been used for the markets for call origination, termination and transit on fixed networks (i.e. Lattelekom infrastructure). Further markets, such as broadband access, are now under review.


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