Digital divide in countryside is 'urgent' challenge for EU
Rural actors face a race against time in their efforts to ensure that the European Union's next long-term budget better addresses the challenges of villages and remote regions, the European Committee of the Regions warns in a set of recommendations that call on to do more to sustain rural regions.
The recommendations, which were adopted by the CoR on 1 December, bring a local and regional perspective to a European Commission initiative launched in April, EU Action for Smart Villages. The CoR calls for the initiative to be more ambitious and warns that extra work is needed now if the 'smart villages' initiative is to be "sustainable and effective" by 2021, when the EU's next budget begins. Its overarching message is that the EU needs to pay greater attention to rural challenges. EU should follow up the Urban Agenda adopted in 2016 with a Rural Agenda, and that rural communities need to be thought of systematically by EU policymakers. The CoR "regrets", for example, that that the structural funds don't dedicate enough budget for the rural development policy. The CoR welcomes the communication on The Future of Food and Farming adopted on 29 November in which the Commission declares that " One priority for this future joint work across policy areas is development of "Smart Villages" throughout the Union ".
The opinion was drafted by Enda Stenson (IE/European Alliance), from the rural county of Leitrim in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Stenson said: "Nine in ten households without fixed broadband are in rural areas, and that is just one element in the imbalance in digital services for people, like me, who live in rural areas. In this day and age, this digital divide is a fundamental threat to balanced and sustainable economic development as well as to social solidarity. Without decent broadband, some of the greatest, urgent threats to rural life – a loss of jobs, depopulation, and ageing – will only worsen. Europe needs people in its countryside, developing new businesses and manning traditional industries like farming. The provision of broadband to local communities should legally be recognised as a service of public interest. The European Committee of the Regions would like the EU to follow the example of Finland and Switzerland, by guaranteeing services down to the last mile. Failing that, at the very least, we need to make sure that rural issues are factored into decision-making much more. At the moment, rural issues are frequently relegated. We have a 'smart city' model; we need a rural equivalent, keeping the same principles as the 'smart city' model, but with practical modifications. We need to get to a point where cities and rural areas are thought of at the same time. Urban and rural areas are complementary."
The CoR welcomes the broadband competencies offices (BCO) launched on 20 November 2017 to advise local and regional authorities on ways to invest effectively in broadband, and help citizens and businesses get better access to broadband services but calls on the European Commission to step up efforts to develop high-speed internet in rural areas via accessible funding models which do not restrict the access of certain Member States to funding for investment in broadband networks and supporting access to funding for investment in broadband networks for small scale projects.
The CoR's recommendations underscore the importance of technology as a backbone of rural economic and social life.
Specifically, the recommendations call for efforts to reduce the market dominance of "legacy providers" of IT services to rural areas, for EU-funded training to improve "digital literacy" (particularly of older inhabitants), for targeted support for existing rural employers with farmers a "priority group", and for initiatives to boost rural entrepreneurship. The current failure to provide full last-mile services increases the importance, it says, of 'digital hubs' in rural areas, an idea being developed in some member states. Hubs reduce the digital divide, but also revitalise village centres, provide jobs, offer training opportunities and could act as "anchors" for e-services, such as e-health, e-lawyering, e-governance, and e-commerce. The European Commission could raise the profile of rural initiatives by introducing an annual award for successful 'smart villages'.
Digital initiatives need to be part of a broader push to address the "critical challenges" of many remote rural areas, such as energy and transport. The opinion recommends steps to tap the potential of 'smart energy' – including local production of renewable energy – and presses for more detail about how the EU's Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), intended to fill in the missing links in Europe's energy, transport and digital backbone, could be used to improve transport in rural areas. The importance of bottom-up community-based approaches is also stressed, with particular support for the notion of 'innovation brokers' to boost local development. Local and regional authorities are "ideally placed" to be 'innovation brokers', and in some cases already do so, through development boards, enterprise offices, and tendering procedures.
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