Home EuropeEurope II 2009 Closing the digital gap in Europe

Closing the digital gap in Europe

by david.nunes
Aarti Holla-MainiIssue:Europe II 2009
Article no.:6
Topic:Closing the digital gap in Europe
Author:Aarti Holla-Maini
Title:Secretary General, European Satellite Operators’ Association (ESOA)
Organisation:European Satellite Operators’ Association (ESOA)
PDF size:508KB

About author

Aarti Holla-Maini is the Secretary General of European Satellite Operators’ Association (ESOA); she has worked for many years in the aerospace industry, especially with satellite business strategy and the legal aspects of technological development. She has been the secretary general of ESOA since 2004. Previously, she worked in Brussels representing Galileo Industries where she worked closely with European Institutions on the development of the public-private partnership scheme and management aspects of the Galileo programme. Ms Holla-Maini started her career in the aerospace industry at DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (now EADS) in Munich, Germany. Aarti Holla-Maini holds an MBA from HEC in France, a diploma in German law from the University of Passau, Germany and a law degree from King’s College at the University of London.

Article abstract

EU has set broadband Internet access as one of the goals of the i2010 strategy. Many EU programmes, including e-Health and e-Education, depend on networks capable of transmitting large quantities of data at high speed. Nevertheless, it is difficult to economically bring broadband service to people in remote areas. Satellite connectivity can easily and economically resolve this problem, but two EU policies – technology neutrality and structural funding for individual regions – currently block EU funding for satellite broadband deployment programmes.

Full Article

Nearly 200 million of all European citizens do not use the Internet at all and 230 million households in the Union still do not have access to the World Wide Web. The statistics cause even more alarm when we consider the differences between urban and rural areas, and also when we compare individual Member States. In countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, more than 60 per cent of the population does not use the Internet, whereas in Denmark or the Netherlands, that percentage goes down to just over ten per cent. i2010 strategy These are just some of the results published in the mid-term review of the i2010 strategy and although some figures look discouraging, in fact a lot of progress has been made over the last few years. Launched in 2005 as an integral part of the EU’s Lisbon Strategy for a knowledge-based society, this plan brings together all the policies and initiatives aimed at boosting the use and benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs). A lot more still remains to be done however and the mid-term review makes it very clear: “Europe needs to shift up a gear to lead the transition to the next generation networks while not slacking off in its effort to overcome the digital divide.” The case is especially true when we talk about broadband connectivity, which the EU has set as one of the goals of the i2010 strategy. Broadband connectivity The speed and capacity of broadband turns the Internet into a powerful communication tool for both consumers and business, as well as into a source of information and research. Sixty per cent of public services in the EU are fully available online and there are revolutionary programmes being implemented in areas such as e-Health and e-Education. They depend on a network capable of transmitting large quantities of data at the fastest speed possible. Broadband – used already by 20 per cent of the EU population as of January 2008 – is clearly becoming the standard mode of connectivity. Despite continuous growth over the last few years, penetration is slowing down and the gaps between Member States in terms of take-up, speed, price and coverage are widening. Broadband penetration in northern countries such as Denmark, Finland, Holland and Sweden exceeds 30 per cent of the population while in Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, Greece and Romania it accounts for even less than ten per cent. The reasons for this are many. Firstly socio-economic barriers in several Member States result in lower skills and correspondingly lower interest and need for advanced technological services. Secondly: speed, price and coverage. It may take a few years to balance social disparities across Europe but improving on the availability and affordability of access should be feasible within a reasonable timescale. Technology neutrality to the test The European Union’s approach to improve access to broadband connectivity and other ICT-related services has been exclusively pinned on the notion of ‘Technology Neutrality’. This principle aims at maintaining a level competitive playing field by not favouring any particular technology. Based on that idea, legislators have long hoped to stimulate competition among the different alternatives capable of delivering broadband connectivity, which would eventually result into wider areas of coverage, better services and lower prices. Some countries, and especially highly populated urban areas, in which there were already competing technologies, have benefited enormously from competition. The bundling of products including broadband access, telephony and/or television is also becoming more and more common in many of those highly developed regions. The growth rate of DSL, still the most common system for broadband in Europe, has started to decline and some new alternatives are increasing their market share. Despite the promising figures, the EU strategy to spread the use of broadband has not been able to solve the differences between the most and the least developed Member States, nor between rural and urban areas. The rollout of DSL and cable is accelerating in European cities but in the remotest parts of the Union the deployment of those technologies is, at best, not commercially attractive and, at worst, substantially more expensive than other alternatives. That is why policy-makers should not be held back in the name of ‘technology neutrality’ from promoting technologies, such as satellite that are not only optimally suited to respond to many public sector requirements, such as emergency response, but are also a proven infrastructure that can quickly bridge the geographical digital divide – reaching out to Europe’s islands, mountains and villages – in a cost-effective way. Satellites are a natural complement to existing land-based technologies, both wired and wireless, taking one step further to ensure that access to broadband is available to all European citizens. Geographical digital divide There are two types of digital divide: social and geographical. The first depends on a multitude of educational, cultural, and socio-economic factors that need to be tackled using a long-term approach. The latter can be eradicated thanks to technologies that have a global reach and that do not depend on the deployment of lengthy and costly terrestrial infrastructure to access those remote and scarcely populated areas of very little commercial interest to service providers. As has been seen with broadband penetration, broadband coverage has also rapidly grown in the last few years and with it too, the gap among Member States and, more importantly, between rural and urban areas. DSL, the most common system for broadband access, is now available in 89 per cent of all the telephone lines in EU25, but this percentage has now started to plateau while other alternative technologies are still marginal in many Member States. The differences are just getting wider and in the case of rural areas in countries such as Greece, Czech Republic, Malta, or Cyprus there is no DSL coverage at all. Waiting patiently for a technologically neutral market to take its natural course to stimulate competition and bring connectivity to those areas will not bring results. Even when there is coverage, the speeds are usually low and the prices way too high. Universality of service Satellites already deployed in space offer broadband connectivity using just an antenna attached to housetops. They provide a universality of service that can be a real solution to the geographical divide cutting across borders and covering the entire globe. Satellite capacity is available to start a significant rollout of services although action is still necessary to improve awareness in a Europe afflicted by technology neutrality: a concept that those outside Brussels may not have heard of and may care even less about. Companies have been investing in new solutions and applications to lower the cost of the end-user terminals and reach rates similar to that offered by DSL in Europe. An expert group made up of industry members working with the European Commission on the issue of the Digital Divide came to the conclusion that satellite was best in areas with a minimum of 20 households per square kilometre. Satellite infrastructure requires large investment and operators need a return on that investment. In addition, service providers and local support infrastructure is needed including user terminals and installation. Whereas it is relatively easy to see how structural funds, for example, could be used to support the construction of new phone or cable infrastructures, in more remote regions it is not a new terrestrial deployment that is required but a satellite one. Can structural funds be used to bring satellite connectivity to those without any? Since structural funds are given to individual regions they do not naturally lend themselves to satellite services, which draw upon economies of scale and are most cost-effective when providing service to multiple regions and a great numbers of users. Satellites infrastructure is available for sharing by many regions and Member-States and cannot be amortized on the same basis as a fibre optic network or a cable. Structural funds should also be available to fund services and equipment in regions where there is a clear market failure. Appropriate recognition EU officials must therefore not only embrace the potential and advantages of satellite communications, but also ensure that legislation allows taking advantage of their technical strengths. During the Fifth Space Council in 2008, space ministers already recognised the substantial contribution of space to attaining the EU’s Lisbon Strategy objectives. Member States clearly asked for “an appropriate regulatory framework and the sustained access to radio-spectrum for space applications”. After travelling the 36,000km from outer space, satellite signals are fragile when arriving on earth and the stronger terrestrial frequencies easily interfere with them. That is why protection must be in place to avoid interference with crucial services such as emergency or sea communication, but also with the day-to-day information and entertainment that the world has come to take for granted. Satellite orbital positions and the allocation of the frequency bands they operate in is coordinated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). European legislation must be consistent with those international agreements to avoid potential conflicts among operators and Member States. Such conflicts would only serve to jeopardise the quality of satellite services within Europe. Global backbone Satellites provide an invisible safety net, a global backbone, upon which most of today’s communications services rely. Even cable TV often relies on this satellite backbone. The networks that satellites are able to create also enhance social cohesion among all European citizens, making the world genuinely a smaller place by fostering a rich cultural exchange. The European Union still talks about total connectivity years after it originally said it wanted to make it a reality. Satellite technology could have brought Europe one step closer to achieving that objective. Policy makers should not be afraid of promoting specific technologies when they are so clearly the optimum solution for a persisting problem. After all, politicians will be remembered for the bridges they build, not for the gaps they leave. n

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