European Commissioner Neelie Kroes picked Bulgaria, a country with a spotty record in pursuing the European Union’s digital agenda, to deliver a speech on September 20 on the need to build a more interconnected and competitive EU for the digital era.
Kroes, visiting Bulgaria at the invitation of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, spoke to a conference on the digital agenda, her portfolio in the European Commission, identifying three “ingredients for success”: fast broadband networks, digital skills, and investment in innovation.
“The EU needs fast broadband networks for everyone. Without that, none of the magic will happen. That’s why broadband, more than anything, stimulates the economy: 10 percentage points more broadband penetration means one to 1.5 per cent more growth,” she said.
“Here in Bulgaria, there’s still a way to go. Fewer than 40 per cent of households have any kind of broadband connection; in rural areas, only one in three people even have coverage. Meanwhile, only one per cent of Bulgarians access 3G internet on their phone, just a fraction of the EU figure. All of those people are missing out on so much opportunity.”
Expanding broadband access was needed, which required not only investment in infrastructure, but also knocking down political and administrative hurdles.
“Procedures that are too cumbersome, or construction permits that are too hard to get, so that the digging for new networks can’t even start. Improving that environment is well worth the effort,” she said.
In terms of digital skills, the EU was failing to produce enough IT professionals to satisfy demand – vacancies in the sector could reach 700 000 by 2015, she said – but also taking the digital technologies to the masses; almost half of Bulgaria’s population has never used the internet, she said.
To ensure future growth, more investment in innovation was needed. “The next generation of EU research funding, Horizon 2020, will take that even further. We’ve proposed 80 billion euro in funding. A simpler, less burdensome structure. Taking more risks to allow radical innovation. And with support for particular countries to build capacity. I hope that Member States can agree on this proposal, and agree to invest in our common future,” Kroes said.
Some of the criticism strikes close to home in Bulgaria, a country that has received plenty of criticism from the European Commission in the information technologies and communication sector since joining the bloc in 2007 – for delays in the implementation of the EU-wide 112 emergency number and failing to bring down voice costs for consumers, to name just two (progress in both areas has been made in recent years.)
Bulgaria is also one of the bloc’s laggards in implementing the switch to digital broadcasting, planning to ask the EC for a delay as the country struggles to free the necessary frequency spectrum. E-government, similarly, is still taking its first steps, although an ambitious programme is has been announced, which targets having more services online by the end of 2013.
For all that, Bulgaria has made progress in certain other areas – IT is one of its stronger industries as the country attempts to position itself as a strong destination for outsourcing, while the lack of stifling regulation in the 1990s has yielded a strong market for high-speed internet services (albeit not one that shows in EU statistics, which do not take into account LAN-based services, which dominate the local landscape, as providers of broadband internet).
(European commissioner for the digital agenda Neelie Kroes speaks to a conference in Sofia on September 20. Photo: European Commission)