It has become a cliché to remark on how our lives have been turned upside down in the past year and a half. But it’s important to reflect on how Europeans’ lives have changed, what they want for the future and how government, industry and civil society can support them for what comes next.
Take connectivity, it has been a lifeline for people and businesses. Many of us have learnt to use it in ways that we never did before. In some cases, it has brought about a paradigm shift in how we work, live and connect with others. This has had obvious health and safety benefits, as people stayed at home, with many able to continue working and learning, remotely. But it has also made people ask if remote working and learning is here to stay and where they want to live in the future.
A recent survey from the Vodafone Institute reveals Europeans’ changing attitude to living in rural areas. Over half of urbanites surveyed, from 15 European countries, said they could imagine moving to the countryside. These numbers rise to 68% in the Czech Republic and 62% in Romania and Greece. High-speed connectivity and good health infrastructure are key for people to make the move, and nine out of ten think improving broadband in rural areas is an important task for the European Union.
From my point of view, this is an important task for all, including governments, businesses, industry and civil society. We need to work together to move towards the overarching goal of creating a Europe of equal opportunities, no matter where we live.
We know a lot about the urban/rural divide, the gap between incomes, resources and opportunities of people in rural areas, compared to those living in cities. The EU has made it clear that we should close this gap and there are huge benefits to fostering vibrant, prosperous rural communities. The ecosystem created in towns and villages by sustainable, economic growth is immeasurable: businesses can set up locally at a lower cost, shorter commutes reduce emissions and increased pupil numbers in rural schools gives hope for the future of these communities.
Rural areas are home to one-third of EU citizens but working and living in such areas is not always easy. While rural parts of Europe and the people living there have made large gains in adopting digital technology over the past decade, they generally remain less likely than urban adults to have home broadband or own a smartphone.
In urban areas, 86% of all EU households have Next Generation Access (NGA) connections, compared to only 59% of rural households. And that’s the average. In some countries – Lithuania and Bulgaria, for example – it’s as low as 30%. So, the current reality for many Europeans living outside an urban centre is that they cannot work remotely, operate a business locally using the latest technology tools or access adequate online education and public services.
The pandemic and our reliance on technology has highlighted that digital benefits can only be harnessed with access to the right infrastructure alongside fast, reliable connectivity. This connectivity is essential to improve livelihoods and for businesses to flourish – regardless of location. And as we look to the future, next generation networks will create new jobs in rural economies, bring e-health, digital learning, e-government services, improve the quality of life and attract businesses to these areas. Rural connectivity also opens up access to technologies, like precision agriculture, that can help reduce emissions – and it helps social inclusion by reducing isolation.
The benefits are endless and outlined in a new report produced by Deloitte and commissioned by Vodafone, ‘Enhancing Rural Connectivity’ – this provides a blueprint for governments and policymakers on how they to make the case for rural connectivity and it gives examples of how this could be achieved.
The EU targeted the gap in rural connectivity with the Digital Decade goals, which aim to deliver gigabit connectivity and 5G to all citizens by 2030. The European Investment Bank estimates that €200 billion is needed to deliver broadband access of at least 100 megabits per second for EU citizens in rural areas. This gap cannot be met by public or private funds alone. Appropriate policies can complement this by encouraging collaboration between public and industry stakeholders, ensuring that public funds are used efficiently to deliver the greatest benefits.
The formula for success is simple but requires change:
First, as a priority, both public and private investment is needed in rural connectivity and to accelerate the deployment of 5G across Europe for socio-economic drivers, such as hospitals, schools, transport, industrial hubs and smart agriculture.
Second, this must be coupled with reforms, such as investment-friendly spectrum auctions, removal of unnecessary red tape and deployment barriers.
And finally, governments and industry must work together to accelerate the use of ultrafast connectivity for the benefit of education, health, climate change and business, as set out in in the Enhancing Rural Connectivity report.
Connectivity is crucial for people in remote areas. We should strive to bridge the digital divide, improve public services delivery and create an environment that stimulates digital innovation in rural areas. We should all work together to ensure that everyone is connected and that no one is left behind.
Erzsébet Fitori, Vodafone Group Head of EU Affairs & Relations
 Survey of 15,000 people in 15 countries was commissioned by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications and conducted by Kantar.  Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2020. Connectivity.