EU: Broadband key to e-government

The European Commission has just raised the bar for all national and regional public sector services, arguing that its initial...

The European Commission has just raised the bar for all national and regional public sector services, arguing that its initial target of getting all schools online has largely been met.

The next goal is to get public services such as schools, hospitals and local authorities to trade up to broadband, said Erkki Liikanen, the commissioner for enterprise and the information society.

"We have come a long way, especially with schools, in getting public services online. However, very few such services have broadband connection so they fail to make full use of the Internet's potential," Liikanen said.

According to a survey by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, commissioned by Liikanen's department, Internet penetration in schools in the UK Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Finland and Germany is just under 100%. Spain lags the furthest behind with just 59% of its schools being wired up to the Internet.

However, research by Flash Eurobarometers estimated that broadband access to the Internet in schools is still rare. Its report for the European Commission found that just fewer than 20% of European schools have an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service, and only 5% of schools have cable access. A quarter of all schools still use dial-up phone lines, while 60% have an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connection.

Local and national government offices have put basic public services online. Sweden tops a recent list, reporting a 20% increase in the number of government Web sites between October 2001 and April this year.

Belgium and Spain also saw sharp improvements, according to research by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. The slowest adoption rate of e-government services came from Portugal, Finland and the Netherlands. All three saw an increase of around 5%.

The slow growth in Finland and the Netherlands could be because e-government there is nearing saturation, Liikanen said.

But without broadband, e-government can't offer the most valuable service: interactivity. "There are a lot of e-government Web sites out there but interactive services are still very underdeveloped," Liikanen said.

The commissioner is responsible for nurturing the growth of the online community in the European Union. However, he has no power to force local and national governments in the 15 member states. Instead, the commission benchmarks, or monitors, the progress made in each country and sets targets.

The latest target is outlined in the e-Europe 2000 plan Liikanen unveiled at the end of May. National and local governments should have fully interactive Web sites by the end of 2004, the plan says, and all schools should have broadband access by the end of 2005.

Money to fund the hoped for technological step forward must come from existing European and national budgets. Some €6bn (£3.8bn) of EU structural development funds is already earmarked for high-technology projects in poorer regions between 2000-2006.

The only change to financing will be that the European Commission will increase its share of co-financed projects, called e-TEN projects, from a ceiling of 10% at present to around 35%, Liikanen said.

"This means we will be able to support fewer but bigger projects," Liikanen said.

"Broadband is the key to unlocking e-government in Europe," he said. "Once you have broadband access feeding the various different platforms such as the PC, digital TV and mobile phones, then e-government, e-learning and e-health can all be done."

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