Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m very happy to be here to welcome you to the official launch of the Broadband Competence Offices network.
At the Commission we feel strongly that this launch represents an important milestone on the road to providing fast, reliable broadband to all our rural communities. And let us not forget that this is a very worthwhile end destination – not just for our rural citizens, but also ultimately for all European citizens.
Let's start by looking at our rural areas. If we truly want to reverse the trend of rural depopulation and build sustainable, thriving communities, broadband will be absolutely critical.
Critical from an economic point of view, because business creation, precision agriculture, and remote work requires connectivity.
Critical from a lifestyle point of view, because modern rural lifestyles – including the provision of healthcare – require connectivity.
And critical from a social point of view, because modern rural communities require connectivity to connect with each other and the wider world. This is of course particularly true for our younger citizens, who have an app for virtually everything you can imagine!
Our rural communities have themselves identified and explained this critical need:
A year ago more than 340 rural stakeholders developed the Cork 2.0 Declaration, "A Better life in rural areas," identifying policy responses for current and future challenges facing farming and rural communities.
The Cork Declaration provided us with a very strong signal: in order to improve the potential offered by the connectivity and digitisation of rural areas, particular attention must be given to overcome the digital divide.
Stakeholders also underlined that our rural and agricultural policies must work in synergy and coherence with other policies and that these policies should take rural interests into consideration when they are designed.
This so-called "rural proofing mechanism" should apply to all policies affecting rural areas, including of course the digital single market.
Rural areas and the communities living in them have a central role to play in the smart, sustainable economies of the 21st Century.
Unfortunately, rural areas in Europe are less well served than their urban cousins when it comes to broadband access. Only 40% of rural households have next generation access compared to 76% of total EU households.
And in relation to the EU target that all EU citizens should have access to high speed internet by 2020, we already know that, at the current rate of knots, this will not be the case for many people in EU rural areas.
It is not acceptable that rural people are effectively second class citizens in the digital society. We are One Europe of equals – rural and urban should be on an equal footing when it comes to broadband.
This is, I believe, one of the most important challenges facing agriculture and rural areas today.
The urban-rural digital divide is not just an imbalance of technology or connectivity: it is an imbalance of opportunity.
If we want to keep our rural communities strong and sustainable, while generating the additional benefit of reducing the burden on our cities, we need to do more, and we need to do it faster.
I'm pleased to say that the CAP and a number of other EU policies are working together to deliver results.
During the 2014-2020 period, about €20 billion from the five structural and investment funds are devoted to ICT, broadband and e-governance. Around €6 billion are financing high speed broadband roll-out in both rural and urban areas.
The European Agricultural Fund of Rural Development is contributing and it will roll out broadband to 18 million rural citizens during the 2014-2020 period.
In addition to funding via grants, the European Investment Bank and other financial bodies could also help local authorities and rural communities to get access the finance required for their projects.
Additionally, The Smart Village concept is a good example of how to overcome the rural-urban divide. If you live in a smart and connected village, you have access to knowledge and markets which were previously reserved for urban dwellers. You also have access to infrastructure, social and cultural services, and you enjoy improved quality of life.
(Toolkit for Rural Broadband)
But we can always to do more. It is for this reason that today, the Commission is launching a Toolkit for Rural Broadband. I am glad to say that this is a fruit of good cooperation across Commission services, including those of Commissioners Gabriel, Vestager and Cretu, under Vice President Ansip. We are glad to be able to announce this 5 point action plan here today. These are five targeted actions, with explicit deadlines, to bring maximum leverage to today's launch of the Broadband Competence Offices.
Action 1: We are setting up the aforementioned Broadband Competence Offices. To target our actions, we need up to date and detailed maps of broadband white spaces – areas deprived of essential broadband services. I strongly encourage Member States and private investors to support the Commission's efforts in relation to developing more solid mapping.
Action 2 will be the deployment of "Broadband missions" to member states and regions with low levels of rural broadband coverage. These missions will comprise experts from across the Commission, who can provide technical assistance to unlock the administrative and financial bottlenecks to broadband rollout.
Action 3: we are designing a "common methodology" for planning, reporting, monitoring of broadband investments. This should be a useful indicator and resource for regions that wish to increase rural broadband coverage.
Action 4: we are introducing a "rural proof test" we will prioritise rural broadband in the reprogramming of any structural and investment funds.
Action 5: we will update the Commission guide to high-speed broadband investment as an extra resource for actors in the field andour services will design a "rural broadband project framework" to help local communities in the practical details of launching successful projects .
All of the actions in this 5 Point Plan for Rural Broadband have deadlines and will be implemented quickly by our Commission services. However, we need the active cooperation of public and private actors at all levels – this is a shared enterprise. You are our key partners in supporting the implementation of the Digital Single Market, at regional and local level. You are our boots on the ground!
I wish you every success in your endeavors!
Allow me to make a couple of final points. The support for "last mile connection", which is often the weakest point, is particularly needed and appreciated by local residents and businesses.
The "last mile" is also the "last 5-10%" who are still waiting to be connected to high speed broadband, are for me the first "5-10%" of the population in terms of importance – they are our farmers and rural dwellers. They are the people who get up early in the morning, in all weathers, 365 days a year, to provide the food for us and our families.
So let's turn the concept around and focus on these first 5-10% of European citizens – our farmers and rural people, and put the priority on them.
I mentioned earlier that we need accurate maps to identify rural areas lacking broadband. Unfortunately, I think in a way we can already see this map, but not how we would like to see it: this map shows high levels of support for extremist, anti-European, populist parties across our continent. It is a map of a Europe that feels left behind.
A Europe that cannot access the rich array of services that are only available online. We need to reconnect rural Europe.
As President Juncker said in his State of the Union speech "Europe must breath with both lungs, otherwise our continent will struggle for air". This applies to urban and rural, as much as east and west, or north and south. This means that we all need to work together to fight the digital divide.
Accordingly, the launch today of the Broadband Competence Offices is an important milestone in reconnecting rural Europe.
This Launch event, with the participation of broadband companies, investors, banks, national and regional regulatory bodies, national and regional public investors, researchers, NGOs, and project promoters – not to mention 3 Commissioners and 4 Commission DGs! - illustrates that this issue is a priority across the board.
The challenge now is to move swiftly and decisively towards concrete operational decisions and results, and I firmly believe that the Broadband Competence Offices network will be at the heart of this important journey.