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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 10:12 GMT
Europe lags in internet race
Hand on keyboard, Eyewire
Europe is trailing US with the number of people online
test hello test
By BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield
Wiring Europe will be high on the agenda as heads of state gather in Barcelona at the end of the week.

A long, hard look will be necessary to find ways of combating an increasing digital divide across Europe and to speed up currently slow take-up of internet access and e-commerce.

When European ministers met two years ago Lisbon, they pledged to make the EU the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

But getting internet access into homes across Europe is not proving as easy as originally hoped, as the EU's own report published ahead of the Spanish summit shows.

Digital divide

While 58% of all Americans have internet access at home, Europe is trailing with just 38% online at the end of last year.

Affordable and widely accessible broadband is crucial if Europe is to meet the Lisbon target

Erkki Liikanen, Information Society Commissioner
There is a huge disparity between member states. In the Netherlands, 60% of the population are online compared with 10% in Greece.

Sweden and Germany have over 50% penetration, while the UK comes fourth in the EU league table with around 46% of its population online.

Analyst firm IDC has come up with similar figures for internet access in Europe.

There are concerns that internet penetration has reached a plateau with little increase in connections between the summer of last year and December.

The EU is increasingly keen to look at alternatives to the PC for net access, such as mobile and digital TV.

Broadband slow to take off

Access via a modem is becoming more popular. Providers are offering users unmetered services that allow them to pay a monthly fee rather than paying for net usage by the minute.

Broadband, however, has been something of a disaster in Europe with only 6% of homes wired to a high-speed net connection.

Internet access in Europe
Sweden: 63%
Netherlands: 49%
UK: 46%
Germany: 41%
France: 37%
Italy: 31%
Portugal: 24%
Source: IDC
The stranglehold of incumbents such as BT and France Telecom has made it difficult to bring prices down.

Opening up the network to other operators via local loop unbundling has proved less than successful.

Information Society commissioner Erkki Liikanen acknowledges that the EU must now shift its focus to make sure broadband is cheap and widely available.

"Broadband is the essential physical infrastructure of the knowledge society. Affordable and widely accessible broadband is crucial if Europe is to meet the Lisbon target," he said.

An urgent enquiry into e-commerce has been called for as shopping on the net fails to attract users. Only 4% of European surfers classify themselves as frequent online purchasers.

E-commerce fears

This is partly due to worries about how secure it is to buy online. Europe has half the secure servers per capita of America and yet virus attacks are on the increase.

In response the EU wants to set up a cyber security task force to tackle security issues and internet crime.

Shoppers on Oxford Street, PA
Online shopping fails to compete with high street
Strides have been made in connecting public services to the internet, with citizens taking more interest in e-government services and 80% of schools across the union connected to the web.

But the EU acknowledges that more needs to be done.

While more citizens are accessing government services online, the majority are using it to download information.

Only 10% are interacting electronically with their government.

Similarly in education the report concedes that 10% of the net connections in schools are not used by pupils but for school administration.

In future the emphasis will not just be on putting the technology in schools but on ensuring that the internet is used to advance learning.

"Being a student in a school connected to the internet does not necessarily mean that one has access to the internet. Neither does it imply that the internet is being used for learning," reads the report.

After the Barcelona summit, the emphasis is likely to be on ensuring that the technology serves the purposes of citizens and is cheap enough and of a good enough quality to ensure more Europeans join the internet age.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Web rage hits the internet
12 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Local loop loses out
04 Feb 02 | Business
Broadband too dear, say Europeans
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