Europe Readies To Bridge The Digital Divide

By | April 5, 2004 | Feature

The European Commission (EC) hopes it can play a substantial role in bridging the digital divide in Europe. Right now in Europe, there are many people who cannot access the latest high-speed digital Internet technologies, and there still are many others watching analog TV.

One of the challenges for the EC will be bringing the whole of Europe into the 21st century technologically. Philippe Busquin, European Research Commissioner at the EC, told Satellite News that a lot of work was going to be done in this area during the next 12 months.

“Within the framework of its eEurope 2005 Action Plan, endorsed by the Seville European Council in June 2002, the EC will set up a “Forum on the Digital Divide,” Busquin said. “This forum will bring together all stakeholders in the area of information society and electronic communications, including players in the satellite sector and the European Space Agency (ESA).”

The forum will analyze many issues. It aims to define the public and user needs to be addressed under a digital-divide initiative covering the enlarged European Union. It will carry out a cost/benefit analysis of the various technological options, including the space-based ones. It also will assess how the various options fit within the national strategies provided by EU member states, and it will draw lessons and identify best practices from existing initiatives. The EC will report on the forum’s outcome in mid-2004.

“A range of lessons can also be learned from EU pilot projects in the areas of telemedicine and tele-education where special attention is paid to rural and isolated areas,” Busquin said.

In terms of the impact space applications can have in bridging the digital divide, Busquin said satellite technologies can provide an efficient infrastructure for the delivery of electronic communication services.

“This market is a commercial one characterized by an intense competition between operators and technologies,” Busquin said. “Through its eEurope 2005 Action Plan, the Union sets the objective of providing a favorable environment for private investment in order to create new jobs, boost productivity, modernize public services, and give all citizens the opportunity to participate in and benefit from the global information society.”

The challenge of ensuring that Europe’s citizens have access to digital capability is not an easy one. Busquin sets out the scale of the challenge by saying, “Fourteen million European households do not have a realistic chance of achieving access to high-speed Internet services in the near future. Satellite technologies may be able to deliver solutions especially for rural, peripheral and island regions, but their use should be based on cost effectiveness.”

Galileo Factor

While the digital divide is one of the EC’s key initiatives, a number of eyes will be on the Galileo program this year. Galileo will be Europe’s own global navigation satellite system, providing a highly accurate, guaranteed global positioning service under civilian control. It will be inter-operable with the U.S. Global Positioning Service (GPS) and GLONASS, the two other global satellite navigation systems. Busquin believes it is vital for Europe to have its own satellite navigation system. He commented, “Galileo will ensure that European economies do not need to rely on systems that are managed elsewhere. Today the only systems in existence are the U.S. GPS system and the Russian GLONASS system, which were both initially created for military use. While both systems are made available to civil users, there is no guarantee of their continuity, with the risk of users being denied access at any time.”

Busquin believes there are a number of benefits for having this system, and that lessons learned in the implementation of Galileo will help in future space projects. He said, “Important Europe-wide macro-economic benefits will also be derived from Galileo, in particular, through achieving a European share in the equipment market, efficiency savings for industry as well as a wide range of potential social benefits such as cheaper transport, reduced congestion and less pollution. Galileo is the first real trans-European infrastructure project.

“Through Galileo the EU has learned a great deal regarding the importance of inter-institutional and public/private partnership in getting such a project, literally, off the ground,” Busquin continued. “Indeed, the lessons learned in Galileo will prove invaluable in future activities which require the bringing together of many public and private organizations to make an initiative successful.”

While Galileo is important in terms of having independence in satellite navigation, Busquin said international co-operation with Russia and the United States is vital for European space policy.

“The important point when considering space policy is that it is an international field,” Busquin said. “A coherent European space policy does not make any sense if it is not grounded in the larger global context. Unlike the days of the Cold War, going to the moon and Mars is not about proving one’s superiority over a political adversary. It is about all of us around the world working together for the common good.”

The co-operation between Europe and other major superpowers is of immense benefit, especially because Europe is the main partner in space of the United States today, Busquin said.

“While we have achieved a great deal on our own, what most people don’t realize is that almost every task being undertaken in space, whether by us, the Russians or the Americans, is the result of cooperation,” Busquin explained. “Our strategic partnership with Russia is an important element of European space policy. The recent decision to install Soyuz in Kourou is a first step in that direction. Using Kourou for manned space flights to the International Space Station could extend this collaboration. Europeans must preserve their capacity to access the ISS to ensure the use of the European Columbus Laboratory. Exploratory discussions are also planned with the People’s Republic of China.” — Mark Holmes

Contact: Fabio Fabbi, European Commission, e-mail: Fabio.Fabbi@cec.eu.int

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