BCO Network: addressing the digital gap in rural and other remote areas
The workshop, organised by the European Commission and the BCO Network Support Facility, shared ideas on how broadband projects can be implemented in rural and remote areas and how these projects can empower such areas. The session was moderated by Mr Jan Dröge (BCO Network Support Facility). The speakers were Ms Margaret Bateson (DG Agriculture and Rural Development), Ms Marianne Selkäinaho (Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), Ms Maria Sörman (Swedish Post and Telecom Authority), and Ms Emilija Stojmenova (University of Ljubljana).
Mr Dröge opened the session by introducing all the panellists and explaining the main purpose of the BCO Network that unites public institutions responsible for broadband support in the EU: to initiate exchange of experience among different member states and thus help speed up broadband roll out.
Ms Bateson presented why broadband is so important and mentioned its positive effects on GDP, labour productivity, social inclusion, sustainability and education. She also introduced actions undertaken by the European Commission concerning broadband, most notably the Action Plan for Rural Broadband. The plan consists of 5 specific actions that are now being implemented in order to bring broadband in rural areas.
The next speaker, Ms Selkäinaho, described the situation in Finland. She highlighted that the Finnish government had decided to invest only to connections of 100 Mbps, leaving out all slower connections. She then mentioned several challenges when it comes to introducing high-speed broadband in rural areas: great distances in Finland, tens of thousands of lakes and rivers, and sometimes the attitude of people, who are not interested in broadband, unintentionally ignoring the way social services are developing to be fully digitalised in the future.
Ms Sörman presented the Swedish example as a very similar case to Finland, regarding both the geographical resemblance and the urge to invest in future technologies. Sweden made a very successful project in the region of Gotland with investments from the government, the EU and the residents. As many as 85 percent of residents joined the project and some of them even offered their land to cable rollout for free to lower the costs. As a result, visitors from different parts of Sweden now stay longer in Gotland thanks to the better connectivity and ability to work from there, helping the local economy.
The last panellist, Ms Stojmenova, was talking about the methodology SEROI+, which can assess digital services not only by their economic value, but also by their social, economic and environmental impact. She also described a network of FabLabs in Slovenia, which mentors start-ups to create new digital services for citizens.
An interesting discussion among participants and panellists followed.
Take away message
The digital gap affecting European rural and remote areas brings significant obstacles for their development and for the European economic growth. The lack of reliable connection and digital skills limits citizens and businesses. Rural areas are often areas of market failure. Public investment is crucial. The EU supports broadband rollout in rural areas and will continue doing so in the next programming period (2021-2027). The BCO Network connects public institutions from the Member States and helps exchange experience in broadband deployment.
“EU funding will be crucial for broadband connections of sparsely populated rural areas also after 2020.” (Marianne Selkäinaho, Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry)
“The digital divide between urban and rural areas is not only an imbalance of technology or connectivity. It is an imbalance of opportunity.” (Margaret Bateson, European Commission)
“Access to broadband is not only access to the Internet and social media, but is access to information, knowledge and services. It is about access to equal opportunities and empowering people regardless of the place of living.” (Emilija Stojmenova, University of Ljubljana)