Neelie Kroes: ‘Let’s build a connected, communicating continent’

Speech of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

I always enjoy addressing CIOs. And we have much in common. Your job is to help your business capture digital opportunity – and we’ve just seen some good examples.

Well, my job is to give you the framework where you can do that: every business, every citizen, and every government. So we have much in common. And I think working together we can achieve a lot.

One of the things Europe needs today is digital skills. At some level, they’re essential for almost any job. But there’s also a huge demand for high-quality skills; including many jobs that didn’t even exist 10 years ago.

The fact is, high-quality human capital is key to a digital recovery – our people need it, and our economy needs it. And yet we’re not doing well enough: Europe could soon be short of nearly one million skilled ICT workers. None of us can fix this alone – but equally, we can all benefit, including your business’s bottom line.

So last year when we met, I proposed something new to you: a new approach to tackle this problem. A “grand coalition” for digital skills: a whole new way to work in partnership to tackle a common problem.

And I must say that I’m impressed by the response we’ve had. This great pledge from CIONet is in good company: among the many good pledges we have received from businesses, training providers, and voluntary organisations. Even whole countries are working on their own “national grand coalitions”.

June 4, 2013

But I particularly like your pledge because it involves passion – and lots of it. Your analysis is spot on. Today, there are many rational arguments for choosing an ICT career – but let’s face it, people aren’t always rational. Did you choose your career after carefully weighing up the pros and cons? I’m not sure I did. Most people react more to intuition, emotion and passion. So go out there and share your personal experience! Make the image of ICT more human to those still at school. And you can really make a difference.

And if you’ll let me give you a slight nudge: I hope you will in particular look at the gender balance. There aren’t enough women in ICT: having more would be better for women, and better for the sector. It’s time to tap that huge female potential, if not for your diversity strategy, then just because our economy – and your business – need all of the skills they can get.

But digital skills aren’t all we need. And that brings me to my second topic today.

Because you also need fast connections: the right broadband networks. For almost every new kind of digital service. And you need them to be reliable, pervasive, fast.

Today, digital capital is essential for business. And by any measure we are lagging behind the rest of the world. In the USA, in South Korea, in Japan, you name it: they enjoy wider, better coverage. Take mobile 4G connections, for example: those three countries together have 88% of the world market; here in Europe, we have six!

Last year, you took part in a survey on how to enhance the business value of broadband. That highlighted just how important it is for you to have fast, consistent connections. Because for so many business needs, broadband is the bedrock.

And you also told me some of the obstacles you find in today’s European market. When you connect up your offices, you get a connection that is slow, inconsistent, or patchy. You pay too much, like through high interconnection fees or roaming rates. When you pick a broadband provider, you don’t have enough competition and choice. I know that many of you would love to use innovative services, but they aren’t always on offer. And, by the way, I know many of you face security threats too: in the UK, for example, in one year alone, three quarters of small businesses, and 93% of large ones, suffered a cybersecurity breach. The cost and impact of those breaches can be significant, sometimes even millions of euros. It’s often businesses who foot the bill: and it’s time we joined forces to get more secure.

Fixing these problems is important: over time, it will only get more so. With new tools like videoconferencing, teleworking, cloud computing, internal social networking, 3D printing, you name it. These could change how we do business: but they all need fast, resilient connections.

Including across borders. Many businesses, in every sector, are enjoying the EU single market boost: with customers, suppliers, subsidiaries, running across borders. If they want to stay in touch, they need the telecoms networks to match.

So we must bring the single market boost to the telecoms sector too. But at the moment we don’t have that; not yet, anyway. With national telecoms operators, national networks, national rules for spectrum, systems differ and diverge. Artificial borders mean arbitrary barriers: and that has consequences for you. You pay more when you call to or from abroad, paying “international” rates within Europe and high roaming charges. You can’t freely consume telecoms services from across Europe; you’re stuck with what’s on offer locally. You can’t get innovative new services, like communications that are secure or guaranteed quality. And the telecoms sector itself remains fragmented and weak, unable to innovate and invest, so you get patchy service and less choice. Networks suffer from lack of investment, lack of integration across Europe, and lack of resilience.

Why is that? A lot of it is due to market structures. And that’s where the EU can step in.

Fixing those problems would mean a strong European telecoms sector – able to think European and compete globally. But it’s not just about them. It is also about the wider ICT sector, where European companies struggle to lead against global competition – search engines, social networks, handset makers. It’s about the kinds of business where connectivity is becoming essential to the product they’re selling – from financial services to cars to healthcare. And it’s about every business that needs to use ICT solutions to the full, and stay in touch across borders. I’m guessing that’s all of you.

Changing that, building that single market, is my priority for the rest of this mandate. I don’t act from ideology, and I’m not going to build new institutions for the sake of it. But I am determined to take the practical and pragmatic steps we can take to connect our continent and help every business.

It won’t be easy. There is a tight agenda to meet. And we may meet obstacles; those who cannot see beyond legacy process, those content with their boxed-in markets, those who want to fight over crumbs when we could be making a bigger cake. But I’m going to try my best. And I hope you will help me. The support of European business can really help us deliver. Do so, and we make a better Europe for every business and every citizen.

The digital boost matters for all of you. And it matters for our economy.

It matters that we skill up our workforce to play their part in tomorrow’s economy. It matters that we capture the broadband boost – worth hundreds of billions to GDP. And it matters that you get the networks and frameworks to match your cross-border ambitions. So please join me – and let’s build a connected, communicating continent.

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