Europe as a whole remains far less wired than trading rivals such as Canada, Japan or Australia, according to an annual EU survey of connectivity released today.
And while some EU economies are among the worlds most digitally advanced, major regional disparities persist with less-connected countries in the south and east lagging far behind peers in the north and west, the European Commissions Digital Economy Society Index for 2018 shows.
“As a whole, the EU is making progress but not yet enough. In the meantime, other countries and regions around the world are improving faster,” Digital Vice President Andrus Ansip said after results were released.
“This is why we should invest more in digital and also complete the Digital Single Market as soon as possible: to boost Europes digital performance, provide first-class connectivity, online public services and a thriving e-commerce sector.”
The Index, which measures connectivity, digital skills, digital public services and a range of other indicators, shows that Bulgaria, Greece and Romania rank as Europes least developed digital economies.
As in previous years, Denmark, Sweden and Finland lead the pack as Europes most developed countries, with the Netherlands Denmark and Luxembourg ranked highest for connectivity, including broadband and mobile networks.
But while the bloc shows overall progress in digital development, it may not be enough to compete with more nimble digital economies like Korea or the United States.
As it stands, the EUs top four most digital countries in Europe collectively rank in second globally, according to the International Digital Economy and Society Index. The EU28 as a whole, however, lags far behind countries like Japan, Norway, Canada and Australia.
The EU is trying hard to improve its digital performance.
The bloc has ambitious plans to roll out the next generation of telecom networks, 5G, within the next decade.
Only 58 percent of Europeans have access to very high-speed connections, at rates of at least 100 megabits per second.
But many countries, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe, but also ambitious digital players like France, are still struggling to introduce earlier generations of networks and cover their territory equally.
In the Commissions survey, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg rank highest for connectivity, including broadband and mobile networks, with Italy, Hungary and Greece lagging furthest behind.
But overall, only 58 percent of Europeans have access to very high-speed connections, at rates of at least 100 megabits per second. Only 15 percent of homes have access to ultrafast broadband.
The same disparity is seen on digital skills. While Nordic countries and the U.K. have populations with notably advanced digital skills, almost half of all Europeans still lack basic technical competences, according to the index.
Show Europe the money
The European Commission has long argued the implementation of its multipronged digital single market strategy, which includes sweeping overhauls of telecoms, e-commerce and privacy rules, would provide a much-needed boost to Europes entire digital economy.
But many of the files have yet to be agreed, let alone implemented, including the new European Electronic Communications Code designed to boost connectivity, the Copyright Directive and new consumer rules, drafted to ease cross-border e-commerce sales.
Indeed, the results of the Commissions proposals may not affect European citizens for years to come.
The other panacea? Money.
The EU is hoping to earmark new funds for skills training, startups and infrastructure investment in the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework, proposing a sweeping 64 percent increase in investment for digital and research funding in total.
But the move may be too little too late. Much of the new funding wouldnt become available until 2021 and still needs to be negotiated by member countries.
The Commission has also dedicated €1.5 billion between 2018 and 2020 to support the development of artificial intelligence.
And the EU needs significant buy-in from private industry to upgrade the continents connectivity for the 5G future, to the tune of close to €500 billion.
Without more investment commitment from businesses, itll be hard for the EU to blast ahead of its more digitally advanced Asian and North American competitors any time soon.