Europe's broadband lag means 2020 Digital Agenda targets unlikely

Figures released by the EU  show that despite increasing broadband connection speeds Europe still lags far behind Asian countries such as Japan in terms of speed.

The figures published by the European Commission show that many more EU residents have access to broadband connections of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps), rising to 29 percent in July 2010 from 15 percent last year.  

However only five percent of lines in the EU have average speeds at or above 30 Mbps, while 0.5 percent have access to speeds over 100 Mbps, which pales in comparison to Japan and China where high speed broadband connections are becoming the norm.

The EU Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda spoke out with the release of the EU broadband connectivity figures, demanding that countries do more to ensure that they reach aims for fast and ultra-fast connections by 2020.  According to the Digital Agenda 2020 targets, it is necessary to ensure that all households should have access to broadband speeds of at least 30 Mbps, with at least half accessing over 100 Mbps.

“Fast broadband is digital oxygen, essential for Europe’s prosperity and well-being. Take up and available speeds are improving, but we need to do more to reach our very fast broadband targets. In particular, we need urgent agreement on our proposal to ensure radio spectrum is available for mobile broadband, for which demand is growing very fast,” said Neelie Kroes at the EC.

There are positive signs however with broadband subscriptions up to over a quarter of every 100 citizens, rising from 23.9 last year to 25.6. 

According to the statistics, between July 2009 and July 2010 the number of broadband lines continued growing in the EU by eight percent, though this represented slower growth than the 11 percent seen the year before.  It is recorded that by July 2010 there were around 128 million fixed broadband lines in the EU, with 9 million lines added since July 2009, a large chunk of the 128 million households in Europe.

Denmark and the Netherlands continued to lead in broadband take up, with 40 lines per 100 reaching approximately 80 percent of households, although growth rates are slowing as markets reach saturation.

Part of the reason for the slowing of broadband take up is the massive increase in annual growth for mobile broadband, which saw significant growth of 45 percent in the last year, with six in every 100 owning a mobile broadband dedicated access device such as a dongle.

However it is noted that Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) is still the vastly predominant technology to access broadband in Europe with 100 million lines.  While fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) grew by 40 percent it currently only represents 1.7 percent of total lines in Europe as it is only present in a small number of countries including Sweden.

This means that in terms of new entertainment and business services such as HDTV or video conferencing Europe is severely lagging, as much faster internet connections are needed to match world leaders like South Korea and Japan. 

This is because most EU broadband lines are based on DSL technologies and so average speeds are lower than in developed countries with high speed internet that can be achieved through LAN connections. According to EU figures only three percent of all broadband lines are LAN based, while this figure is significantly higher in Japan, which has 54 percent LAN connections, with South Korea on 49 percent. 

While many EU countries have seen greater proliferation of broadband, they also fall short of the five percent of American broadband lines with LAN. The figures are printed in full here

According to Charlie Davies, analyst at Ovum, there are a number of reasons behind the disparity between the EU and Japan and Korea.

“One of the factors as to why European countries are behind Japan and Korea is that there is much more encouragement and a strong drive from the government to help establish high speed connections,” Davies told TechEye

“For example the government in Japan has strongly supported NTT and allowed the company to increase to 70 percent of the market, which has made it easier to actually role out a high connection network, whereas in Europe, where there is considerably more competition, it would be difficult due to the cost for each individual company.”

“Also in terms of geography Japan has much higher density which means that costs are massively reduced, while most European countries have a significantly more dispersed population.” 

“In this respect I don’t think that the 2020 Digital Agenda target of half the population reaching over 30 Mbps is likely to happen at the moment.  While in many countries it will easy to implement high speed connections in the first 20-30 percent of the population, accounting for cities, it will be very difficult to reach this for rural areas.  In Japan for example this will considerably less of a problem.”

Davies added: “It is also worth noting that there is a culture in certain Asian countries of early take up of new technologies that has developed over the past few decades which could be part of the reason for such a gap.”