Europe’s Digital Divide

Whilst Europe overall has overtaken the United States as the world’s most wired region, there remain huge technological discrepancies between countries within the European Union. With broadband users in Europe hitting the 100 million mark, they now outstrip the combined equivalent users in the United States and Canada. At the same time, countries in Eastern Europe still lag far behind in bringing the power of the net to bear on issues of bureaucracy and government. These are the highlights of the recent i2010 report from the European Commission, a scorecard for the EU’s strategy to make the region more competitive in the high-tech market.

Overall, the Commission’s report paints a bright picture for Europe. With nearly 40 million new regular Internet users added in the last year, and European broadband speeds on average 2 or 3 times faster than in the United States, it is easy to see why Brussels has such high hopes for the European tech industry. Coming as it does from the corridors of power in Brussels, the report inevitably stresses the positives, but the figures at the same time cannot hide the divide between countries within the EU: 40 million EU citizens are still not connected to the web, and whilst in the Netherlands over 80 percent of the population regularly use the internet, in the 7 lowest use countries, which include Poland, it is less than half of that.

For Poland, however, this is just one of a number of indicators which are worryingly below the EU average. Of all the EU member states, only Bulgaria has lower penetration rates of broadband than Poland, and Poles also lag well behind in e-government. Whilst 100 percent of basic government services are available to Austrians online, and the UK offers 90 percent, Poles know all too well that you still have to queue up to pay your parking fines and renew your driving licences. With just 25 percent of government services available online in Poland, it is hardly a model of EU efficiency.

The report also highlights the lack of public-private partnerships, governmental co-ordination and the role of academia in the information and communications technology sector in Poland: “They are rather fragmented, with low levels of interaction among the various players, which are all present but not really integrated. There is no synchronised horizontal cooperation between the public bodies in charge of innovation and university-industry linkages are poorly developed,” the Commission highlights.

The most worrying aspect of the report, however, is the feeble spending on research and development, which will determine EU competitiveness in the coming years. In this crucial category, Europe as a whole is falling short. In 2005, when the European Commission set out the rules for the i2010 initiative, it aimed for an R&D investment goal of 3 per cent of GDP by 2010. This will not be achieved, the EU has now admitted.

American businesses spend just over 10 per cent of their R&D budget on technology, compared to an EU average of about 6 per cent. Sweden, Finland and Denmark, where business R&D budgets exceeds 11%, stand out as exceptionally research-intensive, with levels above the US. But whilst the Scandinavians outspend the Americans, the rest of the 27-nation bloc is skimping on crucial tech investment. And Poland? It comes at the very bottom of the list, with a figure well below 1 percent R&D budget on tech investment.

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