Time for the #EuropeanUnion to close longstanding #digital gaps
The European Union recently unveiled its European Skills Agenda, an ambitious scheme to both upskill and reskill the bloc’s workforce. The right to lifelong learning, enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, has taken on new importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, explained: “The skilling of our workforces is one of our central responses to the recovery, and providing people the chance to build the skillsets they need is key to preparing for the green and digital transitions”.
Indeed, while the European bloc has frequently made headlines for its environmental initiatives—particularly the centrepiece of the Von der Leyen Commission, the European Green Deal—it’s allowed digitalisation to fall somewhat by the wayside. One estimate suggested that Europe utilizes only 12% of its digital potential. To tap into this neglected area, the EU must first address the digital inequalities in the bloc’s 27 member states are addressed.
The 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an annual composite assessment summarizing Europe’s digital performance and competitiveness, corroborates this claim. The latest DESI report, released in June, illustrates the imbalances which have left the EU facing a patchwork digital future. The stark divisions revealed by DESI’s data—splits between one member state and the next, between rural and urban areas, between small and large firms or between men and women—make it abundantly clear that while some parts of the EU are prepared for the next generation of technology, others are lagging significantly behind.
A yawning digital divide?
DESI evaluates five principal components of digitalization—connectivity, human capital, the uptake of Internet services, firms’ integration of digital technology, and the availability of digital public services. Across these five categories, a clear rift opens up between the highest-performing countries and those languishing at the bottom of the pack. Finland, Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands stand out as star performers with extremely advanced digital economies, while Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria have a lot of ground to make up.
This overall picture of a widening gap in terms of digitalization is borne out by the report’s detailed sections on each of these five categories. Aspects such as broadband coverage, internet speeds, and next-generation access capability, for example, are all critical for personal and professional digital use—yet parts of Europe are falling short in all of these areas.
Wildly divergent access to broadband
Broadband coverage in rural areas remains a particular challenge—10% of households in Europe’s rural zones are still not covered by any fixed network, while 41% of rural homes are not covered by next generation-access technology. It’s not surprising, therefore, that significantly fewer Europeans living in rural areas have the basic digital skills they need, compared to their compatriots in larger cities and towns.
While these connectivity gaps in rural areas are troubling, particularly given how important digital solutions like precision farming will be for making the European agricultural sector more sustainable, the problems aren’t limited to rural zones. The EU had set a goal for at least 50% of households to have ultrafast broadband (100 Mbps or faster) subscriptions by the end of 2020. According to the 2020 DESI Index, however, the EU is well short of the mark: only 26% of European households have subscribed to such fast broadband services. This is a problem with take-up, rather than infrastructure—66.5% of European households are covered by a network able to provide at least 100 Mbps broadband.
Yet again, there’s a radical divergence between the frontrunners and the laggards in the continent’s digital race. In Sweden, more than 60% of households have subscribed to ultrafast broadband—while in Greece, Cyprus and Croatia less than 10% of households have such rapid service.
SMEs falling behind
A similar story plagues Europe’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which represent 99% of all businesses in the EU. A mere 17% of these firms use cloud services and only 12% use big data analytics. With such a low rate of adoption for these important digital tools, European SMEs risk falling behind not only companies in other countries—74% of SMEs in Singapore, for example, have identified cloud computing as one of the investments with the most measurable impact on their business—but losing ground against larger EU firms.
Larger enterprises overwhelmingly eclipse SMEs on their integration of digital technology—some 38.5% of large firms are already reaping the benefits of advanced cloud services, while 32.7% are relying on big data analytics. Since SMEs are considered the backbone of the European economy, it’s impossible to imagine a successful digital transition in Europe without smaller firms picking up the pace.
Digital divide between citizens
Even if Europe manages to close these gaps in digital infrastructure, though, it means little
without the human capital to back it up. Some 61% of Europeans have at least basic digital skills, though this figure falls alarmingly low in some member states—in Bulgaria, for example, a mere 31% of citizens have even the most basic software skills.
The EU has still further trouble equipping its citizens with the above-basic skills which are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for a wide range of job roles. Currently, only 33% of Europeans possess more advanced digital skills. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists, meanwhile, make up a meager 3.4% of the EU’s total workforce—and only 1 out of 6 are women. Unsurprisingly, this has created difficulties for SMEs struggling to recruit these highly-in-demand specialists. Some 80% of companies in Romania and Czechia reported problems trying to fill positions for ICT specialists, a snag which will undoubtedly slow down these countries’ digital transformations.
The latest DESI report lays out in stark relief the extreme disparities which will continue to thwart Europe’s digital future until they are addressed. The European Skills Agenda and other programs intended to prepare the EU for its digital development are welcome steps in the right direction, but European policymakers should lay out a comprehensive scheme to bring the entire bloc up to speed. They have the perfect opportunity to do so, too—the €750 billion recovery fund proposed to help the European bloc get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already stressed that this unprecedent investment must include provisions for Europe’s digitalization: the DESI report has made it clear which digital gaps must be addressed first.
International collaboration in the field of #ICT research is a central cog in the wheel in tackling the global challenges of today
Researchers and scientists from all over the world are working together to find a vaccine to combat Coronavirus. Companies from Europe, China, USA, Australia and Canada are at the forefront in seeking to find medical solutions to tackle Covid-19. But there is one common denominator in the work of all these specific research programmes. They bring scientists together from different parts on the world to work on this incredibly important field of health research, writes Abraham Liu, the Huawei chief representative to the EU institutions.
The pursuit of scientific excellence does not stop at any defined geographical border. If governments or companies alike want to deliver the most innovative products and solutions into the marketplace, they should pursue a policy of international co-operation and engagement.
In other words, ensuring that the best scientists in the world are working together in the pursuit of a common purpose. For example, this can relate to collaborative research activities in combatting chronic health disorders, tackling climate change and in building the most environmentally friendly and energy efficient cities of the future.
Advances in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT) now, underpin today the innovative development of all vertical industries. The energy, transport, health, industrial, financial and agriculture sectors are being modernized and transformed via the process of digital ingenuity.
- 5G can now ensure that medical operations can be carried out remotely.
- Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) can help in identifying Covid-19 via cloud applications.
- Innovations in the field of the Internet of Things (I.O.T) ensure the more efficient operation of water supply systems by automatically identifying faults and leaks.
- Today 25% of all traffic congestion in cities is caused by people looking for parking spaces. By properly using data centres and by integrating the use of video, voice and data services, traffic-light and parking systems are operationally more efficient.
- 5G will deliver self-driving cars because the latency response times in carrying out instructions are now much lower compared to 4G. Car companies are now using server computers to test new vehicle models as opposed to deploying physical cars for such demonstrations.
- 85% of all traditional banking services are now carried out online. Advances in AI are also leading the fight in combating credit card fraud.
- By properly using sensors to identify the blood pressure and heartbeat levels in cattle, milk production can increase by 20%.
At the core of all these advances is a very strong commitment by both the public and private sectors to invest in basic research. This includes areas such as mathematical algorithms, environmental sciences and energy efficiencies. But international co-operation and engagement is the key component in delivering the digital transformation that we are witnessing today.
The policy objectives of Horizon Europe (2021-2027) will be successfully achieved through positive international collaboration. This research programme of the EU will help make Europe fit for the digital age, build a green economy, tackle climate change and implement the sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Huawei can and will help the EU fulfil these vitally important social and economic policy goals.
Huawei is committed to continuing our policy of international engagement in delivering new innovative products and solutions into the marketplace. Huawei employs over 2400 researchers in Europe, 90% of whom are local recruits. Our company works with over 150 universities in Europe on a range of different research activities. Huawei is an active participant in EU research and science initiatives such as Horizon 2020.
The private and public research and educational communities from all parts of the world – by working together - with a common sense of purpose - can and will tackle the serious global challenges facing us today.
Where we are united, we will succeed. Where we are divided, we will fail.
#Coronavirus crisis delays Europe’s #5G rollouts
The COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted most of Europe and forced nationwide shutdowns in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK has also forced a delay in European 5G rollouts, most notably in France. France’s telecoms authority, ARCEP, was supposed to launch the country’s long-awaited 5G spectrum options in mid-April; the regulator has now admitted it will not be able to stage bidding while the country is on lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the EU’s second-largest economy.
For the time being, France’s four major operators – Orange, Bouygues, SFR, and Free – aren’t overly bothered by the delay. They are instead busy trying to keep up with a sharp increase in data traffic from tens of millions of professionals forced into telework, not to mention the demand for streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime. After a request from the French government, Disney+ even had to delay its rollout in France by two full weeks to avoid oversaturating the network.
Over the longer term, however, the delay in holding the auction makes it highly unlikely France’s telecoms sector will be able to meet its targets for 5G deployment in 2020. The French government had been pushing operators to deploy 5G networks in at least two cities before the end of the year, on the assumption that bidding would take place in April and that deployment could begin in July.
Just the latest obstacle
Before the pandemic swept across Europe, EU countries were already struggling to keep up with other markets in bringing 5G infrastructure online. According to GSMA and Ericsson, Europe is collectively expected to only achieve 30% 5G market penetration over the next five years. By comparison, South Korea is on pace for 66% and the United States is expected to reach 50%.
Even within the European Union, the gap between member states is growing. While France struggles to determine when it will be able to allocate 5G spectrum, Italy’s two largest operators already made 5G service available in major cities like Milan, Turin, Rome, and Naples last year. In Spain, Vodafone began deploying 5G as early as 2018, and had already expanded its 5G network to 15 cities before the end of 2019.
Of course, Europe’s ability to implement 5G technologies has been impacted by the vagaries of global geopolitics. The EU’s efforts to catch up to East Asian and North American telecoms markets have unfortunately been caught in the crossfire of the US-China trade war, now two years running.
The Trump administration, concerned about the security implications of using technology and equipment from Chinese telecoms giants Huawei or ZTE, has pushed its European partners to exclude these firms from their nascent 5G networks. Unfortunately, Europe’s telecoms providers don’t currently have any other alternatives.
Huawei: the only game in town?
American objections — led by President Donald Trump himself — to the use of Chinese telecommunications technologies aren’t baseless. The opaque relationship between companies like Huawei and the Chinese government offer real grounds for concern. U.S., Australian, and other officials arguing that Beijing could compel Huawei to hand over data or otherwise use Huawei as a “backdoor” into vital information systems which use Huawei equipment.
While the company claims its relationship with the Chinese state is no different from any other private firm, reporting from the Wall Street Journal found last year that Huawei had benefited from much as $75 billion in government assistance of various forms.
If Huawei’s position vis-à-vis the Chinese government is fraught, for Europe to extricate Huawei components from its telecommunications networks is practically impossible. Huawei products are already present within European 3G and 4G networks, the foundation upon which the continent’s 5G networks will need to be built. As industry analysts point out, removing the company from those existing networks would require funds that neither European governments nor operators had to spare even before the current economic crisis.
Without Huawei, in fact, Europe’s 5G transition could face 18 months of additional delays and $62 billion in added costs. This helps explain why European leaders have not acceded to American demands, opting instead for an approach that would exclude risky suppliers from “critical parts” of their networks but does not ban any particular company.
This was already a contentious topic between the U.S. and its key allies before the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in a reportedly harsh exchange between President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February, after Johnson decided to allow China’s Huawei to build at least part of the UK’s 5G network.
Does this mean European and American officials and regulators have no choice but to accept a central role for Huawei? Not necessarily.
Some advocates of European “digital sovereignty” – a group that notably includes French president Emmanuel Macron – are coming to recognize that Europe’s own primary 5G technology suppliers, Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, are left at a competitive disadvantage compared to rival Huawei’s access to Chinese state aid. That does not mean, however, that Huawei’s lead in the race for market share is insurmountable.
The European telecoms operators who need to decide between Chinese and European suppliers are themselves disadvantaged by the convoluted structure of the European market. Unlike China or the United States, where unified internal markets allow operators to achieve the scale required to service hundreds of millions of customers, the European telecoms sector remains fractured along national boundaries.
Each EU country has its own set of operators, and none of them can match much larger Asian and American markets in terms of the room they offer for growth. While EU-wide consolidation could alleviate this mismatch, moves in that direction have been stymied by regulators in Brussels.
Could the current moment of crisis bring with it an opportunity to reset Europe’s structural disadvantages in 5G? The EU, and indeed the whole of the global economy, will be in need of serious economic stimulus in the wake of the pandemic. A concerted effort to re-assert Europe’s technological independence and competitiveness within the telecommunications sector could help drive that future growth, if European leaders are ready to undertake it.
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