|Topic:||ICT for development – the European Commission view|
|Title:||European Commissioner for Information Society and Media|
Mrs Viviane Reding is European Commissioner for Information Society and Media. Mrs Reding is pursuing the creation of a single European information economy and has modernised the rules on audiovisual content and regulated against excessive international roaming charges. She will soon propose reforms to streamline EU telecoms law to encourage innovation and investment, and stimulate the creative production of content online. Mrs Reding is working with the US on many issues including Internet security, RFID, film piracy and eHealth. Mrs Reding has been a long-time journalist for the Luxemburger Wort and was elected President of the Luxembourg Union of Journalists. She has also served as a Member of the Luxembourg Parliament for ten years, and was a Member of the European Parliament for a further ten years before becoming the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth, Media and Sport in 1999. Amongst her awards and decorations are: The St George’s Cross of Catalunya (1992); Gold Medal of European Merit (2001); Robert Schuman Medal (2004); Prince of Asturias International Cooperation Prize (2004); Officer of the French Legion of Honour (2005); and ìGloria Artisî Medal of Honour, Poland (2005). Mrs Reding earned a doctorate of Human Sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris.
ICTs are recognised tools for socio-economic development. Indeed, meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals in the developing regions of the world depends upon ICTs. The use of ICT in the developing world, especially mobile telephony, has grown enormously in recent years. Still, great disparities in ICT usage exist. The EU is using its extensive experience to help countries and regions around the world. Recently, the EU and the African Union (AU) agreed to create an EU-AU bilateral Working Group on ICT.
When addressing the north-south digital divide today, the issue is no longer simply to insist on the role of ICTs as key determinants of socioeconomic development. The UN Millennium Development Goals, adopted seven years ago, already included ICT as a tool for poverty reduction. The global awareness raising and priority setting culminated with the 2005 World Summit on Information Society, WSIS, in Tunis. The issue today, at the operational level, is the implementation of methodologies for tackling digital exclusion efficiently, in a coherent and coordinated way, to maximise the impact. In this context, the ongoing challenge is to fight against the misconception that this can be left to market forces alone and to convince those who question the relevance of spending development aid on improving access to ICT, arguing that basic services should rather be prioritised. Recent years have seen tremendous developments in the developing worldís ICT sector, especially regarding mobile penetration. Nevertheless, many disparities exist among and within countries, and fast growth in large emerging markets often masks slower development elsewhere. As an example, Africa has the fastest mobile growth worldwide, as mobile phone lines rose from 15.6 to 135 million between 2000 and today. In Chad, the fifth-least-developed country, mobile phone usage jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 in just three years. Despite these exceptional growth rates, varying from 72 per cent in South Africa to one per cent in Eritrea, mobile network coverage on the continent, averaging 15 per cent, is still the lowest in the world. Although considerable progress has been made rolling-out basic ICT infrastructures, the situation is quite different for broadband connectivity and advanced services. Broadband provisioning is currently commerciallyavailable in 170 countries, but high-income economies account for nearly 75 per cent of total broadband subscribers worldwide and low-income countries for less than one per cent. In terms of broadband penetration, while South Korea and some European countries are world champions, many sub-Saharan African countries donít even register in the figures at all. South Africa has a penetration rate of 1.79 per cent and Sudan achieves just 0.05 per cent. ICT marginalisation is a concrete issue for low-income countries, especially from sub-Saharan Africa where the majority of the population lives in rural areas. There is, indeed, a real danger that lack of access to ICTs can deepen existing development gaps and create new forms of exclusion. In this context, it is essential to build on successes achieved elsewhere, especiallywhere public authorities play a proactive role in promoting the modernization and extension of ICT infrastructures and services. Success lies in establishing the conditions for sound, innovative public-private partnerships -the approach promoted in Europe. The EU continues to fight against its own digital divide. The experience gained in this domain, especially the results achieved through the flagship i2010 initiative, demonstrated that the successful development of an inclusive and accessible Information Society relies on a mutually reinforcing relationship between public sector activities and private investment. There is a need to stimulate public-private partnerships based on the principle that investments in infrastructure should be complemented by simultaneous investments in capacity building. This is necessary if infrastructures are to be financially secure and sustainable and offer citizens affordable access and the widest possible use. Regulatory reforms, the definition of national and regional e-strategies, investing in education, in training and in the development of local content and social services are essential enablers in this respect. Such integrated policy has achieved substantial results in terms of broadband penetration, availability of online services and tariffs reduction. The ICT sector is growing faster than Europeís overall economy and contributed nearly 50 per cent of the EUís productivity growth between 2000 and 2006. Software and IT services are currently the most dynamic growth area (5.9 per cent for 2006-2007). The development and the regular review of a consistent, modern and predictable regulatory environment, with the aim to establish a single European information space is fundamental in this respect. This is necessary to stimulate investment in bandwidth as well as demand through lower prices, efficiency and innovation in the provision of services. In addition, technological neutrality (adapted to local contexts) and interoperability should be the basis of ICT policy frameworks in order to promote competition between emerging technologies and choice for consumers. Many developing countries have developed e-strategies that include, as a priority, increased liberalisation and competition in their ICTmarkets. Countries that actually liberalise and foster competition attract the largest share of FDI, foreign direct investment, flows and private investments. Of course there are many other factors, including macro-economic stability and low political risk, to favour the FDI needed to build the ICT infrastructures in developing countries. Although opening-up of ICT markets is needed, the public sector intervention should not be limited to market regulation. Governments and donors must invest and create incentives to develop the necessary complementary capacities and to cover areas of ëmarket failureí. This includes the development of solutions to catalyse socioeconomic development in under-served areas, increased ICT deployment that benefits the poor, development of local content and social services, as well as investing in ICT education, training, entrepreneurship and innovation. The shortage of skills, amplified by the brain drain, is a growing problem for developing countries and accentuates the north-south divide. Currently, for instance, there are more African scientists and engineers in the USAthan on the entire continent of Africa itself. The approach, therefore, has to be comprehensive to cope efficiently with the dynamics of the sector. Based on these principles, the European Commission has set-up Information Society dialogues and cooperation frameworks with several developing and emerging countries. These initiatives, at both country and regional levels, include Latin America, the Mediterranean region, ASEAN and emerging economies (Brazil, China, India, South Africa). Recently, the EU and the African Union (AU)agreed to create an EU-AU bilateral Working Group on ICT based on this model. To bridge the digital divide and encourage the development of an inclusive Information Society in Africa is one of the key priorities of the Joint EU-AU Strategy, to be adopted during the EU-Africa Summit scheduled for early December this year in Lisbon. The EU-Africa Partnership on Infrastructures, adopted by the EU in July 2006, includes as a key component support for the deployment of communication backbones across the continent. A total of Ä5.6 billion from the 10th European Development Fund, EDF, will be allocated to infrastructural development for the period 2008-2013 and this will be complemented by a new financial fund implemented jointly with the European Investment Bank. The Partnership will fund EASSy, the 10,000km undersea fibre-optic cable flagship project planned for deployment on the east coast of Africa. However, as mentioned above, investing in physical infrastructures is not enough. The EUAU Working Group has a mandate to set-up a complementary regional capacity-building programme. The programme will support the development of appropriate regulation and promote ICT usage and digital literacy as outlined by ARAPKE, the African Regional Action Plan for the Knowledge Economy,elaborated in the context of the WSIS. The working groupís objective is to update the plan as needed, not redefine its priorities. Coordination is essential to avoid fragmentation and duplication. The European Commission is promoting the coordination internationally, at the G8 or UN as needed, to align intervention and development aid based on shared objectives and priorities. In this context, the Commission is supporting the Global Alliance for ICT and Development, GAID, which was set-up last year as a global forum for coordination. Finally, policy frameworks, leapfrogging to new technologies and new developments all open promising perspectives for shrinking the digital divide. Emerging technologies, such as wireless communications, open source software and even low-cost access devices, will contribute to spreading the benefits of ICT and related services. Research will help greatly in this respect; accordingly, the European Commission has been very active engaging developing countries and regions in scientific partnerships. A number of cooperative research activities covering such social-priority applications as health, education and environment have been initiated through regional research and education networks; their deployment and interconnection are partially funded by EU cooperation programmes. These include the TEIN2 network in the Asia-Pacific region, ALICE in Latin America and EUMEDConnect in the Mediterranean. These networks, and their interconnection with GEANT, the pan-European education and research network, permit the integration of the scientific communities of these regions at a global level. By fostering collaboration, providing access to remote scientific instruments and facilities, these interconnected networks let scientists work effectively away from major research centres and thus lessen the ëbrain drainí that siphons off many of the best minds and talents in developing regions. Many of the applications supported by these networks will benefit the general population beyond the scientific community and have great social impact, for instance, in the fields of telemedicine and distance education. The next step is to extend GEANTís reach to sub-Saharan Africa, where, so far, only South Africa has such an interconnection. In parallel, the EU 7th Framework Programme for R&D, ICT/FP7, – an ICT priority – is open to participation by organisations in developing countries, which are also eligible to receive Community funding. Its 2007-2008 Work Programmes include specific development- related objectives, notably related to e-health, prevention of natural disasters, open-source software, low-cost technologies and mobile web applications. Currently, the Commissionís financing supports several actions to promote such co-operation and to use existing research results to meet local requirements. The European Commission has uniqueexperience setting-up and managing a comprehensive regional approach to advance the Information Society. Yet, we believe that this should not be EU-centric but shared at the international level, especially given the global dimension of ICTs and the digital divide issue in particular. In order to get the views of all stakeholders, the Commission has recently launched a public consultation on the international dimension of the Information Society (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society). The consultation covers a broad range of issues, including regulatory, market access and trade, research and innovation as well as social aspects. On the basis of the input received, a new EU international strategy for the Information Society, including its development, will be proposed.