New working style for new areas of work
By Nathalie Vandystadt | Monday 17 January 2011
Via the Digital Agenda, the Barroso II Commission is launching a five-year strategy designed to give a boost to information and communication technologies (ICT) markets, which already account for 5% of Europe’s gross domestic product and generate a turnover of some €660 billion per year. It is a sector that also contributes indirectly to the growth of the EU’s economy: 20% for the total increase in productivity and 25% of the total R&D investment of companies, according to figures from the EU’s executive arm. ICTs have made their way into all areas of society: companies, education, entertainment, health, security, energy, environment and transport. Over 250 million internet users connect with each other every day in Europe, almost all Europeans have a mobile phone, whilst a whole generation, dubbed the ‘digital’ generation, has grown up with the web and is crazy about mobile technologies, such as ‘smartphones’, mobile phones with lots of applications. At the European level, the growing importance of ICTs make them one of the key instruments of the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy advocated by the Commission to relaunch economic growth and job creation as well as education, transport modernisation, energy efficiency, professional mobility, support for small and medium-sized companies and the fight against poverty.
There are some ambitious objectives in this agenda: narrowing the gap between the rates for mobile calls made abroad and national rates down towards zero; offering all Europeans access to high-speed internet by 2013 and to very high-speed internet by 2020; and creating pan-European licences to exploit online music rights without national legal barriers.
People knew about these objectives before but it is still a U-turn in the Commission’s approach to the sector. There are no earth-shaking moves in prospect under the EU’s Dutch Digital Economy Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, as was the case several times under her Luxembourgish predecessor, Viviane Reding. Under Reding, of course, ceilings were created and imposed in 2007 so that mobile operators finally reduced their rates for calls abroad, ie the price of calls and SMSs from one EU country to another. Then there was the attempt to create a European telecoms super-regulator, an ambition that was in the end reduced by member states and the European Parliament to simply an advisory body bringing together national regulators.
After the choppy waters encountered in the reform of the regulation for the European telecoms market, completed at the end of 2009, the EU had entered into a ‘reflection phase’. It is a phase that coincided with the renewed mandate for its institutions, in early 2010. “The period may be less active for companies but the political stage has been put in place then for the next five years,” explains a European diplomat. Are there “fewer subjects of friction,” or has Kroes not yet addressed them: for example, is there a need to regulate the roaming market more and impose maximum prices on cross-border mobile internet?
Kroes, who used to be the EU’s competition commissioner, seems to be more discreet by nature and believes in the reactiveness and inventiveness of the markets. The Digital Agenda pipeline of work, which envisages a hundred or so initiatives (including thirty or so legislative proposals) has received a pretty warm welcome on the whole. It covers issues as diverse as generalised access to ultra-fast internet, research and innovation, authors’ rights on the web, cybercrime, radio frequencies, IT standards and Europeans’ digital skills. Two major areas of work are deemed to be the priorities for the months ahead. One is the launch of a multi-annual programme designed to free up more radio frequencies to benefit ICTs and to improve high-speed internet coverage in rural areas. The other is the response to be put in place to deal with the threats from cyber attacks by giving more resources to the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), based in Crete, and by creating rapid intervention teams.
However, Kroes could venture into trickier ground too. Despite the relative lull in the ICTs’ dossier, it is important to remember that she has been very quick to launch two potentially explosive debates. The first relates to the ‘neutrality of the net’. This slightly vague concept, which is at the heart of the concerns of those who advocate freedom on the web, is about retaining the option that internet users have to access content of their choice while industry, for commercial reasons, wants to be able to improve their management of the networks to gain in bandwidth and develop services that need a lot of high-speed internet.
While they refrain from wanting to restrict access to content, online access providers claim that they need “to apply intelligent traffic management techniques”. This is because they say that mobile and fixed networks are now under pressure from the development of services that generate lots of traffic, such as online video. The problem, stresses the Commission, is that these same management techniques could also slow down access to services or applications that are not deemed to be priority ones (because they generate less traffic and are therefore less profitable) or bring down the quality of other services.
The second of these big debates is about high-speed internet and universal service. In other words, do we need to make high-speed internet a basic service, rather like the phone book or the phone box, where 23% of European countrysides are neglected? Operators are very keen for the EU not to legislate in either case. Discussions are already very lively in individual countries and will certainly be taking place at the European level.