EC must up the ante on Digital Agenda

OvumThe EC’s Digital Agenda Scoreboard has made it possible to assess and compare the progress of member states in the deployment of superfast broadband – one of the pillars of the Digital Agenda, due to be achieved by 2020.
The EC’s recent progress report on fulfilling the Digital Agenda has shed light on the current state of the EU strategy for a digital economy. One year on from the launch of the Agenda, the Scoreboard has highlighted that some of the pillars in which the objective is divided – such as Internet uptake and digital inclusion, citizen’s use of e-government and e-commerce services, and €11 billion of public spending in ICT R&D – are on track and likely to be accomplished before the deadline.
On the other hand, some others are severely lagging behind, particularly with regards to access to superfast broadband. While the generic target of broadband for all by 2013 looks very close to accomplishment, given that only four countries – Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland – are below 85% in fixed broadband coverage, much more needs to be done when it comes to super-fast connectivity. The EC itself considers progress so far to be disappointing, as its data shows that while the speed of current-generation broadband is increasing (above 10Mbps), the penetration rate of fixed lines delivering speeds of 30Mbps or above was only 5% as of January 2010, despite a 28.7% coverage. The figures imply that improving digital literacy and inclusion and fostering demand for high-speed access will need to be important considerations.
As things stand, it seems unrealistic to expect that countries will meet the objective of universal 30Mbps coverage – with 50% of lines providing 100Mbps – by 2020.
Regulatory and economic obstacles are getting in the way of the goals. Even the best-performing countries of the EU, such as the UK, are facing problems in the deployment of FTTx. As the EC noted in market analysis for wholesale broadband services, national regulators have often departed from the EC’s recommendation on the regulatory treatment of such networks issued last year, adopting different approaches from each other.
While the number of countries including fiber in their market definitions is increasing, some others – namely the Czech Republic and Lithuania – have had to repeat their market analyses after failure to do so, or to fully justify the exclusion. Those that have imposed obligations have implemented different measures, in some cases including access or pricing obligations.
Such heterogeneity, combined with relatively low uptake of fiber in a European context largely dominated by DSL, means that swift development of mobile broadband is required to get closer to the proposed targets. 4G technologies are likely to deliver a significant share of the connections providing at least 30Mbps, particularly in rural areas.
From this point of view, 2011 has been a year in which some countries have already taken decisive steps. Countries such as Spain and France have already paved the way for operators to embrace 4G by re-allocating the digital dividend, and allowing refarming of the 900MHz and 1,800MHz bands. Refarming is an area in which a coordinated approach will be fundamental in order to achieve the objective on time, especially considering cross-border frequency issues and technical impairments that can’t be solved by one regulator alone. The adoption of the Radio Spectrum Policy Program by 2015, as envisaged by the Commission, could be useful to address the resolution of those technical challenges.
While the picture painted by the Scoreboard can hardly spark optimism about the likelihood of achieving the goals set by the EC, the unveiling of all this data has to be welcomed as a way to “name and shame” countries that are not doing enough to meet the deadlines. The publication next year of a report on member states’ progress in developing detailed national broadband plans - including coverage, speed, and uptake targets as defined by the Europe 2020 Strategy - should be a further stimulus. However, the report might not be enough to ensure that these countries pick up a steadier pace.
The revised European telecoms framework provides the EC with additional tools to ensure more consistent application of the rules. Giving the EC the possibility to effectively veto a remedy chosen by a member state could very well succeed in harmonizing regulatory measures and strategies.
It is important that the EC devise plans to fund next-generation access where the market won’t deliver. The scoreboard suggests that it is on track to meet this objective, having outlined plans to test several pilot projects by 2013, and to have ready funding proposals (with the help of the European Investment Bank) by the end of 2014.