European Parliament backs regional broadband

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BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament voted Tuesday to use public funding to bring broadband into the European Union's remote and rural regions. The Parliament called on EU governments to ensure that hefty chunks of their annual EU grants are pumped into building key network infrastructure to overcome the so-called "digital divide" that could leave much of Europe languishing far behind on critical online services.

The Euro MPs warned that the overall lack of broadband penetration across Europe means the continent still is woefully under-equipped in basic IT networks needed to benefit from the latest generation of on-demand services and be a global economic force.

"It is of the utmost importance for us to get people all over the union connected as soon as possible," said Swedish Euro MP Gunnar Hokmark, who drafted the Parliament's report. "Rolling out broadband Internet connections to bring online services to remote or rural areas like the Greek islands or Andalusian mountains is vital to making Europe a world-leading, knowledge-based economy."

Hokmark said that broadband opened the door for endless applications and services, from cheap Voice over Internet Protocol phone calls to VOD for aspiring film directors. A single EU market of nearly 500 million people with broadband connections would create "a globally unique critical mass of users" and give a shot in the arm to Europe's media, software and online industries.

The Parliament also called on the European Commission to see whether or not governments were hampering broadband by needlessly protecting their national markets from outside competition. "It is important not to distort competition but to open up more competition in this area," Hokmark said.

He said that it is the EU's poorer regions that broadband Internet connections might benefit most by offering education, entertainment and other online services.

"Countries that have led this development have increased productivity dramatically and, at the same time, their citizens have been able to express opinions and demands and exert influence in a way that gives them a global advance," Hokmark said. "Europe can only lead and stay in the lead if it allows for creativity, competition and new ideas in these areas. And it is obvious that the development and deployment of broadband is significantly slower where there is less competition, where incumbents decide on the pace and development of services."

At year's end, just 15.7% of households in the EU's 27-member states had broadband Internet access at home. Although the EU has been ahead of the U.S. since October 2005 on numbers of broadband lines rolled out, transmission speeds on average still lag behind -- partly because of the presence of more high-capacity cable networks in the U.S.

European Internet connection performance also varies markedly across the continent, with some connections carrying more data, and faster, than others. The Netherlands (29.8%) and Denmark (29.4%) now have the highest broadband penetration rates in the world, but in eight EU members the take-up rate is less than one in 10. At the bottom, Greece and Slovakia have penetration rates of only 3.3%.
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