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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Digital Agenda for Europe: what it means for business
Hello Digital business conference
Birmingham, 22 October 2010
It is great to be here at Birmingham’s Digital Week - I love events like this.
The partnerships, the sharing, these things are the spirit of the Digital Agenda for Europe that I will speak to you about today.
If you allow me to share a secret:
I think cities are where the digital action is.
80% of us live in cities or big towns, so big impacts are possible.
Yet cities are small enough to act quickly.
It is the perfect combination.
Still, you might be thinking, what on earth has “Brussels” got to do with my business?
Why should I care what this Dutch lady has to say?
The simple fact is that we can choose between maximising the potential of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) or lose the race for competitiveness.
So we need this digital action at all levels – European level, national level, Birmingham level and in your offices and homes – and the European Union has drawn up an action plan to kick-start this.
As we know, the challenge today is to do more with less.
We have more elderly people to care for; we need to reduce our carbon emissions; we have big public deficits and businesses face more intense competition from around the world.
Of course we must also find ways to integrate a new generation into our society.
None of these pressing challenges can be solved without a strong ICT component.
So my conclusion is that business and the Digital Agenda depend on each other.
We sink or swim together.
How will the Digital Agenda actually work?
In short, it is not about interfering in your life.
I’ve spent my whole life working in, researching or regulating business – and I know that most of the time the best thing a public body can do is get out of the way.
So the Digital Agenda is about helping you compete; and improving the entrepreneurial climate here in Britain and across Europe.
It is about increasing the collective IT skill base and growing the online market, whilst reducing barriers for business and consumers.
It is about investing in the technologies of the future and ensuring the entrepreneurs of today get the financing and have the infrastructures to develop and grow their businesses.
Partnerships and the Digital Agenda
These sorts of ambitions will be realised only with a great deal of collective effort.
In my mind, partnerships are the key.
The complexity of today's challenges and the sheer size of global markets mean we all lack expertise, money or confidence at some point or another.
Sustainable partnerships are a way around this.
I think the right role is often for the European Commission is to bring parties together, lift their sights, and forge these partnerships.
In doing so we are looking to stimulate a virtuous circle of activity.
Removing bottlenecks to new services and innovation will stimulate demand; this should increase incentives for investment in digital infrastructures and innovation.
With strong partnerships we can deliver those breakthroughs, and new content and services, and that will further stimulate demand.
What areas does the Digital Agenda cover?
Just about everything!
So prioritisation and delivery is certainly our next challenge as we move from vision to action.
But let me give you an overview of that vision first.
Nearly 10 million people in the UK have never been online!
Can you imagine what they could contribute to economic growth if we got them using the potential of the internet?
And what about the ridiculous costs you face using your mobiles abroad?
Wouldn’t a real single market for telecoms help with that?
I promise you there will be action in 2011 to deliver a permanent solution to this problem.
What about making eCommerce easier?
We have set a target to have 50% of the EU population buying online, and 33% of SMEs buying and selling online by 2015.
In other words, we want to increase the eCommerce market by 35% from today's size, during a period when the overall economy will probably grow only around 10%.
That is a huge opportunity: let's take it.
We will support you by de-fragmenting the copyright system if you’re involved in music or publishing, for example.
If you’re in B-to-B it might be e-Invoicing and e-Signatures that help most.
If you’re in retail it could be better networks and good data protection that helps attract customers.
What about the hard slog of innovation, or the technical aspects of the digital world?
We certainly don't get amazing new technology by accident.
It takes sweat and tears and money.
And innovators don’t need a pat on the back or a small cheque just once in the life cycle of their innovation – they need an ecosystem of support they can always tap into.
So we are taking action to improve how all stages of the innovation chain work.
And again, partnerships will be critical.
From helping venture capital make the right connections, to opening up more EU funding to SMEs, and taking on risky research no one else will do.
In essence, we want to see more commercial success for all the effort.
In a number of ways the UK has set the example.
For instance the corridor between Cambridge and Liverpool Street station is the closest thing Europe has to a Silicon Valley, and with the Digital Agenda we are aiming to grow this potential.
Finally, a field I am determined to promote is interoperability, open data and standards.
In my mind this is critical for lowering business costs.
We can’t compete on labour costs with China and India, so we have to compete on seamless business processes.
The internet is the best example of an interoperable platform, and look how that transforms data and our daily life.
And when Europe sets its mind to developing standards it can also do brilliantly.
That’s why our mobile phones work everywhere and why we are strong in this global industry.
I want these successes to be replicated.
I take inspiration also from your great fellow countryman Tim Berners-Lee when he says that ‘data is a precious thing.’
I want to free public data so that developers can spread the wealth of this gold mine.
The innovative power and creativity of individuals and entrepreneurs can help make the public sector so much more effective than it is today.
We need to feed that engine with our data.
What does this add up to?
A call to get Every Business Digital.
That could simply mean using a smartphone, or it could mean a great deal more – it depends on your own business needs.
Whatever the case, we need good networks as the base.
That’s why the number one EU target for the Digital Agenda is 100% broadband coverage, followed by increasing access to ultra-fast broadband.
Better broadband equals better business.
Broadband as the basis of digital action
Let me now dive into that theme to illustrate how we can take action.
Many people like to compare themselves to the average.
By that mark Europe has pretty good broadband.
But the average isn’t going to pay off debt or help you compete against Asian rivals with internet 100 times faster than your own.
We have to aim higher: for a first class internet.
It is going to take a great mix of technology and action from all of us to get there.
The market is already taking care of most areas, but there are others that require public investment.
The recently announced BT – EU partnership in Cornwall is a great example.
BT has worked closely with local authorities and is investing around £80 million pounds.
The EU’s Regional Development Fund is adding another £50 million.
By the end Cornwall will truly be one of the best connected places on earth.
It will have benefitted from 4,000 jobs in the roll-out and more from the new opportunities the networks provide.
That’s what I call a clever partnership.
Maybe you could go one better than the Cornish?
There is certainly scope for it. OFCOM manages a favourable regulatory environment, and both BT and Virgin have been willing to engage in major new networks or upgrades.
Even so, the UK’s average actual fixed line residential broadband speed is still only 6 megabits per second in urban areas.
For rural areas – if they are connected at all – the average is 3 megabits per second.
Will you put up with that?
The people of Rutland didn’t!
The result is that Britain’s smallest county has the best broadband.
I find this story so inspiring.
The locals raised £37,000, set up their own company - Rutland Telecom1 - and now they get broadband at least three times faster than anyone else offers.
You can even watch the latest download speed tests on their website.
All of this is taking place literally down the road from this conference (100 kilometres).
The people in Lyddington, for example, were ignored by the big boys in broadband.
Now, for £30 a month, the villagers and local businesses get 40 megabits per second.
That is a revolution – and it shows that change isn’t just about EU projects or national targets: it’s about local initiative too.
I also saw an amazing video by a farmer called Christine Condor from Wray, north of Blackburn.
Christine decided to do her own fibre dig.
She decided fast broadband is the electricity of the 21st century.
After 48 hours and £1,000 she had her own fibre connection, with the help of some neighbours of course.
She lives on a farm in the countryside!
As she says “if we can you do it, anyone can do it.”
These are just a couple of recent examples – I will bet there are people in this room with ideas to match.
Let’s turn them into more than ideas!
For the Commission’s part we will work with each European country to open up spectrum so that wireless broadband can play a greater role.
We’ll be pushing and supporting all national governments' plans2 for meeting or beating the fast broadband targets I’ve mentioned.
And we are simplifying how you can get access to EU funds.
We are hoping even to develop a new financing instrument with the European Investment Bank to grow the pie.
Please don’t miss out on these opportunities as they develop.
It can be surprising what is out there to suit the needs of your business or community.
Even if you don’t want to build your own network like Rutland, there are many ways to bring down the costs of better broadband at the local level.
Simple things like co-ordinating digging so you lay the broadband and electrical cables at the same time.
If you’d like to read more about the details, the European Commission’s broadband package was launched on 20 September and you can easily find it on the internet.
In conclusion, I want you to know that your digital actions make a difference.
Sometimes you might feel like they are only a ‘drop in the ocean’.
But without those drops, there is no ocean.
Our Single Market has delivered us great prosperity.
We must deliver a Digital Single Market and a first-class internet too.
Getting there means a new way of operating.
For the EU – that means less assumptions and more ambition.
For you it means seeing that the Digital Agenda is not something that is going to happen to you; it has to happen with you.
Take that responsibility.
I will leave Birmingham with the impression that people do care and that you are digital leaders.
I also hope you can help others, and profit from their interest in learning about you and copying you.
You are the leaders this Digital Agenda needs.
So I hope you stay in touch with me, and keep thinking beyond tomorrow.
The ‘Digital Britain’ White Paper adopted in June 2009 announced the UK’s ambition to ensure at least 2Mbps for all users by 2012 and to deliver at least 90% coverage of next generation broadband access for homes and businesses by 2017. The current coalition’s programme pushes the 2Mps back to 2015.