Central Europe closes in on digital elites

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AMSTERDAM - Central European nations have closed in fastest amongst emerging economies on the digital elites in North America and western Europe, a ranking of Web-savvy nations showed Thursday.

The region, which includes Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia, scored 6.1 out of a possible 10 in the 2007 rankings, up from 5.8 in the previous year, according to the annual study published by U.S. computer company IBM and the intelligence unit of British magazine The Economist.

The survey produces a scorecard from a mix of factors which determine how "e-ready" countries are. These include the number of broadband Internet connections and the level of online access to public services.

"Central Europe has improved most, which is related to countries joining the EU," said Peter Korsten, European director at IBM's Institute for Business Value.

The gap with North America and Western Europe remains large, with these regions scoring 8.6 and 8 respectively, but it is narrowing.

"It's encouraging to see how countries which invest deeply into their digital capabilities are being rewarded," Korsten said.

In Denmark, which continued to lead the ranking, the government claims 100 million euros of annual savings in administration expenses as a result from the move to digital channels.

"Some Asian countries also experienced significant boosts in the 2007 rankings, thanks in no small part to the vision and commitment demonstrated by their governments in pushing digital development," the study said.

South Korea (16th place), Japan (18th) and particularly Taiwan (17th) have all moved up solidly in the top 20. Singapore climbed seven spots to the sixth position and Hong Kong moved to fourth from 10th place.

Asia overall still fails to make the grade, because it is slowed down by countries like Pakistan, which at 63rd place scores a 3.8, and 56th placed China with 4.4 points out of 10.

India, which hosts software hubs like Bangalore, still scores only a 4.7 for the entire country due to its poorer regions and despite new and important legislation which provides precise definitions of hacking and punishments for offenders.

A good legal framework for digital behavior and transactions has a 10% weight in the ranking.

Government policy and vision account for 15% of the weight, which is why Singapore and Hong Kong have advanced strongly. Both centers have implemented digital identities that enable electronic government such as on-line tax forms and social benefit forms.

"Over the longer term, digital identities will help prevent cybercrime and create more on-line transparency between parties conducting business on the Internet," Korsten said.

Connectivity, which measures how many citizens access the Web and at what price, carries the biggest weight in the ranking, and this year's study stopped counting dial-in Internet lines because they are regarded too slow. Only always-on broadband Internet connections are included.

Citizens in North America, Europe and advanced Asian countries have much better opportunities to access the Web at affordable cost, at less than 1% of the average monthly salary. In developing countries consumers typically pay between 3 and 10% of household income.

Deregulation of telecoms markets in developed countries has helped to lower the costs for broadband access.

Behind leader Denmark, the United States ranked No. 2 and Sweden No. 3. Iran took over the closing spot from Azerbaijan with a 3.1 score.
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