Europe's economic future is digital

26 Jan 2017
Ref: 2/2017

At its plenary of 25-26 January the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted a comprehensive package on the so called Gigabit Society, aimed at improving and finalizing digital connections in whole Europe and thereby strengthening the Digital Single Market.

In its opinion on the European Gigabit Society, the EESC welcomes the European Commission's initiatives regarding the European Electronic Communications Code, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), the 5G action plan and the support scheme for public authorities wanting to offer free Wi-Fi access (WiFi4EU). The EESC agrees with the Strategic Objectives for 2025, which it regards as ambitious but realistic. "A Europe-wide, modern digital single market is important in order to improve Europe's competitiveness, make it sustainable and thus create economic growth and jobs", said rapporteur Ulrich Samm. "We must be aware that this does not happen in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of strong competition from the US and Asia."

Digitalisation needs clear guidance and financial support

"The EU needs to guide the procedure in order to guarantee coherent, pan-European modernisation in support of the Digital Single Market", said Mr Samm, reminding that the full economic and social benefits of this digital transformation will only be achieved if Europe-wide, very high-capacity networks can be deployed. In order to cover remote areas and guarantee access across society, the EESC calls for public support schemes.

The EC's WiFi4EU initiative goes in this direction, providing funds for free internet access hotspots in public places such public buildings, squares, parks, hospitals, etc. In its opinion Internet connectivity in local communities, the EESC welcomes this initiative as it will deliver benefits in terms of accessibility and economic growth. "Together with the single digital identity – proposed by the EESC - this would have considerable impact on strengthening the sentiment of European citizenship and overcoming digital poverty", was the conviction expressed by rapporteur Emilio Fatovic. The EESC, however, considers the 120 million Euro budget allocated for this strategic project as inadequate and has called for it to be substantially increased and complemented through public-private partnerships.

EESC calls for high quality and targeted financial support

Given the rapid progress of digital technology, new installations could quickly become obsolete. In order to make Wifi4EU more dynamic, long-term and sustainable, the EESC proposed to set goals for social and technological development. High-quality WiFi services must be installed over the next three years with a minimum connection speed of 100 megabit/s.

Mr Fatovic criticised the criteria outlined by the Commission for the allocation of funds as "unclear and contradictory". The Committee proposed to set a maximum amount of funding for each country in advance, and to reserve 20% of the budget for the economically and digitally less developed areas so that in particular islands, mountainous, and peripheral zones and areas that have been exposed to natural disasters can get the most needed digital investments.