Brussels, 3 March 2009
Why an ICT policy in rural areas?
The achievement of a knowledge- and innovation-based society is one of the key priorities of the EU within the context of the Lisbon agenda for growth and jobs. The European rural development policy plays an important role in enhancing ICT development in rural areas, notably in agriculture, forestry and the food industry. It complements the Commission initiatives such as i2010 in the fields of broadband, e-business (particularly in relation to small and medium-sized enterprises), e-skills, e-learning and other measures supporting the provision of ICT.
The development of a strong and competitive farming and food industry sector, sustainable rural businesses and vivid rural livelihoods needs a targeted ICT policy within rural development which covers both the demand and supply sides and provides the instruments to ensure the transfer of innovative practices and experiences.
ICT can play a significant role in promoting entrepreneurship and economic progress in rural areas, thus contributing to improve the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry, the quality of life and diversification of the rural economy.
Why this Communication?
The Commission's aim of achieving 100% high-speed internet coverage for all citizens of the EU by 2010, set as an objective of the European Economic Recovery Plan (see IP/09/142 and MEMO/09/35), cannot be reached if attention is not shifted towards the real needs of rural areas. The agreement of Member States made at the Riga Ministerial meeting has already committed them to undertake specific actions for promoting and developing ICT in rural areas.
The Community Strategic Guidelines for rural development 2007-2013 set as priorities equipping rural areas with modern internet connections, the take-up and diffusion of ICT in the agrifood sector as a whole, and the development of rural tourism with the support of ICT.
However, ICT coverage in rural areas is classified as poor or average in most of the rural development programmes and the take-up of the internet in rural areas is two to four times lower than in urban areas, and is growing more slowly than in urban territories. This has triggered a policy response, of which this Communication is part.
At the March 2007 Council the Commission received a mandate to further explore the possibilities for a better access of rural areas to modern ICT, with special reference to high-speed internet access. The Communication aims therefore also at identifying these opportunities within the rural development context, and this on the basis of a study on "Availability of access to computer networks in rural areas", commissioned by the European Commission (DG Agriculture and Rural Development) and completed in December 2007
How does rural development support ICT?
Possibilities for investment in ICT-related activities under the rural development policy are manifold. For instance, support is available for ICT training in the agriculture, forestry and food industry sectors; farm modernisation and farmers delivering ICT services; development of basic ICT services and broadband infrastructure in rural areas, the creation of micro-enterprises and businesses in the ICT domain; rural tourism development with support of ICT; the environmental use of information technologies and applications as well as networking, information actions, etc. Such operations are already programmed by Member States.
So that it complements other EU funding programmes, so far rural development has supported small-scale infrastructural projects that complement more sizeable infrastructure developed by Member States with or without the support of the Structural Funds. Most of the investments planned under rural development in the 2007 – 2013 period will be targeted at the development of e-services, training and applications, with much less to be invested in broadband infrastructure.
Once the European Economic Recovery Plan (already politically endorsed by the European Council in December 2008) is formally approved, changes in the regulation will enable the financing of larger investment in broadband infrastructure under rural development.
What is the current situation as regards broadband and ICT in rural areas?
A significant part of the rural population (about 30% as of December 2007) remains underserved, with no access to the internet. In many rural areas, the quality of broadband connections is far lower than that provided for urban inhabitants. As a result, in rural areas the take-up of e-government services and internet use among rural SMEs and micro-enterprises remains low, with evident lack of skilled labour in the field of new technologies.
In 2008, about half of the people (41.7%) in thinly populated rural areas of the EU-27 never used the internet compared to 27.4% in densely populated areas. In certain Member States about half of the entire population never used a PC (such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Malta, etc.). The take-up of fixed broadband internet (DSL) by household in thinly populated areas is just 30% versus 40% in urban areas. Over the period 2005-2007 the take-up in urban areas increased at a much faster pace than in rural areas. In 2007, at national level, the take-up was two to four times lower in rural than in urban territories. 
What are the key priorities?
An important aspect that needs increased attention is the development of adequate and reliable broadband infrastructure in rural areas. The efforts in this direction were endorsed by the European Economic Recovery Plan, where investments in new and existing fibre networks were promoted and an additional amount of € 1 billion has been proposed by the Commission (MEMO/09/35). This was further elaborated in the Recovery Package proposed by the Commission, which is currently being discussed in the Council (IP/08/1771, MEMO/08/735).
Another priority for Member States should be the development of services and appropriate applications. This is central to boosting demand for, and take-up of, on-line public services and broadband in rural areas. Demand stimulation measures will enhance Member States' rural economies and help drive efficiency gains.
In this context, farm and food industry businesses, non-agricultural SMEs, elderly people and disadvantaged persons, as well as women and young people, should be the main target groups for intervention. ICT shall be used as a tool for bringing territories and people together to reach the overarching goals of growth and sustainability.
What can make a rural ICT project a success and what has been the impact of ICT projects in rural areas so far?
In addition to good project management, a number of economic, social and political factors determine the results of an ICT project. In particular, a combination of Community financial support, a cooperative approach of the national and regional authorities with the involvement of local actors and the identification of a local strategy to exploit the most profitable business opportunities can turn an ICT project into a success.
The study "Availability of access to computer networks in rural areas" commissioned by the European Commission (DG Agriculture and Rural Development) has shown that ICT projects have had a positive impact on the agricultural and food sector, especially on organic farming, agricultural trade and farm innovation, rural tourism and human capacity building.
As to the broader rural economy, ICT-related interventions have had a beneficial effect on renewable energies; broadband infrastructure; training, promotion and information for rural population and businesses; e-commerce; jobs and growth; rural heritage and basic services.
The Commission encourages Member States, project developers and the relevant stakeholders to take advantage of the EU broadband web-portal (www.broadband-europe.eu) launched in June 2008 and the EU ICT practice web-portal (www.ePractice.eu ), and to upload the relevant materials and information on ICT projects.
What does the Commission recommend today?
Further reaffirming the European Economic Recovery Plan's 's objective of developing "broadband for all" and calling on Member States to make an efficient and effective use of the funding available under the Recovery Package, the Commission:
On 2-3 April 2009, the Commission will organise jointly with the B3regions project and the Piemonte region an EU Broadband event in Turin (Italy) which will provide a forum for stakeholders, ICT industry, rural development Managing Authorities and the Commission to inform about the EU spending in broadband within the context of the EU recovery plan and to discuss policy perspectives of a forthcoming EU broadband policy where the issue of 100% coverage of rural area will figure prominently.
In the second half of 2010 another event on ICT in rural areas will be organised, focusing in particular on rural development and the implementation of ICT policies in the rural areas of the EU.
Where can I find more information?
Rural development policy
EU Broadband portal
EU E-Practice website
EU Information Society Policy i2010
EU Broadband event in Turin: 2-3 April 2009
 Council Decision 2006/144/EC of 20 February 2006 on Community strategic guidelines for rural development
 Council Conclusions 7085/07, 19 March 2007.
 Idate study, DG INFSO, December 2008.
 Idate definition of rurality.