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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
How do we deliver broadband for all?
High-level conference on Broadband for All
European Parliament, Brussels, 31 May 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to talk here today.
I'm sure you are all familiar with the Digital Agenda. It is not merely a statement of our attitude towards the digital sector. It is a wider call to action to the many companies and governments, and millions of individuals, who are needed to achieve Europe's digital transformation.
This transformation is essential for our economic future, for assuring growth and jobs in the years and decades to come. We live in a time at which growth rates are weak – too weak to guarantee the levels of employment and social comfort we expect for the future. In that context, we quite simply cannot ignore a sector of the EU's economy which is already bigger than Belgium, and which delivers half of our productivity growth. Rather, we must do everything we can to nurture and support that growth. Those countries that have already fully embraced the Digital Revolution are now reaping the benefits in terms of higher growth and more jobs. In France alone, 700,000 jobs have been created through the Internet; ICT is Germany's second largest employer; and small nations like Estonia set an example to us all in terms of innovation and e-government. Investment in ICT and jobs are, quite simply, different sides of the same coin.
But, as society develops in the digital age, we cannot forget about social inclusion. We know that the internet is impacting on every element of new lifestyles. So the benefits of the internet must be spread to include everyone. We cannot leave some parts of society out of the digital revolution, stuck in the dial-up Dark Ages, cut-off altogether from these opportunities.
That is why it is my ambition to get Every European Digital – which means, in the first instance, that all Europeans, 100% of them, should have access to basic broadband by 2013. This is not the only target of the Digital Agenda. But it is perhaps one of the most important: it will be a solid foundation on which we can build to deliver the remaining targets — faster and faster broadband for a wider and wider segment of the population.
So, let's see where we are with this target.
In fact, today we publish the first "Digital Agenda Scoreboard", the annual report in which we take stock of progress made towards achieving the Digital Agenda targets. You can find the Scoreboard on the Digital Agenda website, where starting today you will also find tools to visualise and download some of the most important data we have around the themes of the Digital Agenda. And we'll be enriching it even more in the summer. As I think you'll agree, significant progress has been made in many areas.
Concerning the 2013 target, the Scoreboard shows that we are already much of the way towards our goal: 95% of Europeans now have access to broadband internet infrastructure. That's a great achievement. But it still leaves a lot of people - 10 million households, in fact - who we are still to reach.
I am confident that this can be done – but only if we use the full range of options. To deliver that last 5%, we are going to have to get creative about the technology solutions we use.
The 10 million unserved households are, by definition, those which it has proved the most difficult and expensive to cover, by and large rural and isolated. The solution of wired networks, which works well for the majority, may become prohibitively expensive there. And that is exactly where other technologies, like terrestrial or satellite wireless networks, can step in. They can be the most cost-effective in such areas where more common, landline solutions are not an option.
I favour such a diversification of infrastructure for two reasons. First, although wireless technology does not have the same performance as advanced wired networks, it is good and getting better. Take satellites. We see already their value to the mobile and television industries, and they can provide a great contribution to deliver the important goal of basic broadband for all. This should not be underestimated. But the contribution of satellite services can also go further. With that clear mandate on basic broadband I hope the satellite industry will also have an incentive to continue longer-term investment. New satellites offer downloads at 10 Megabits per second, which compares well against many of the wired ADSL speeds consumers now receive. In the years to come we may even see speeds significantly higher – a possibility that indicates satellite has a major and long-term role to play also in delivering higher speed broadband in the future.
And second, supporting a range of fixed and mobile solutions promotes competition among technologies, allowing them to develop their comparative advantages and ensuring that in future we can select from the best possible range of options. So, how can we achieve this diversification?
Many Member States are showing best practice here. For example, freeing up and using the right areas of the radio spectrum can reduce the number of transmitters needed for wireless internet - and hence drive down costs. Several European countries are successfully using this approach.
For the Commission's part, we are working hard to promote an efficient radio spectrum policy, opening up a sufficient amount of spectrum for the deployment of wireless broadband. And we are pleased to see that the European Parliament largely shares our ambitions in that field, as it is shown by its report on the Commission proposal for the first Radio Spectrum policy program.
Another avenue worth looking into is how to best aggregate the current patchwork of demand in remote and rural areas and to overcome the lack of technological awareness we often see in those areas.
In that context, the Commission takes a technologically neutral approach to promote innovation and competition. And the Commission will verify that Member States take a similar approach, for instance by keeping a close eye on state aid practices to ensure that certain wireless technologies do not suffer undue discrimination. In the same vein, I will be insisting that Member States factor different wireless technologies into their national broadband plans if they can indeed contribute to deliver universal broadband coverage.
Of course, we are open-minded about what solutions should be used to achieve our targets, and we don't want to pick winners. But I want to send a clear signal to the market and public investors that we cannot afford to rule out viable solutions. I am clear that to deliver "broadband for all" by 2013, to get 100% coverage at lowest cost, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal. Only if we do that will we achieve our goal, and get every European Digital.