According to Politico.eu “Europe largely ignored warnings of a growing digital divide, a continental rift between the well-connected North and the tech-deprived South. Now, that gap threatens to derail the European Union’s tech aspirations, hamper its efforts to become the world’s digital enforcer and potentially worsen the region’s existing economic divisions. … But these goals, known collectively as the digital single market, are based on a flawed assumption: That everyone in Europe has the same online habits — and the same access to the internet.”
This is a wonderful curate’s egg of an analysis – good in parts. There is a simpler explanation as well as a possible solution, though it is not one that the European Commission might be so happy to embrace.
Europe’s mobile broadband access and household income
In the Politico.eu article it quotes an EU table which shows the % of national houshold income necessary to obtain a handset, 1GB of data, 600 minutes of calls and 225 SMS messages. The figures (selected) vary from:
- 7.75% for Bulgaria
- 4.78% for Greece
- 2.59% for Spain
- 2.56% for Cyprus
- 1.82% for Ireland
- 1.44% for Latvia
- 1.000 for France
- 0.97% for Italy
- 0.94% for the UK
- 0.87% for Estonia
- 0.80% for Denmark
- 0.66% for Austria.
While this reveals large discrepancies – Bulgaria, Greece, Spain and Cyprus are more than 2.5 times that of France or Italy – this is arguably the wrong focal point. A more interesting view comes from a comparison of Estonia and Cyprus for mobile data, which must be the key to passing over any digital divide.
Estonia and Cyprus: the digital divide in evidence
Estonia and Cyprus possess similar landmasses and population sizes. Their GDP’s are not significantly different. Where they do differ is Cyprus has significant mountains (to the West) where 4G, or even mobile access, is patchy. Estonia is largely flat (its highest hill – Suur Munamägi – is a shade over 300M compared to the nearly 2000M of Mt Olympus in the Troodos Mountains). This makes high quality coverage simpler in Estonia, which also does not have to worry about constraining signals to the Turkish-occupied North of Cyprus.
But the following indicative table reveals the most vital indicator.
| for 10 Euros/month mobile prepaid data
Carriers (Cyprus / Estonia)
|Cyta Vodafone / Telia||300MB||10GB*|
|MTN / Elisa||200MB||10GB|
|PrimeTel / Tele2||600MB||15GB**|
* Telia charges 8 Euros; ** Tele2 provides its 15GB data for Euros 9.49
Three initial points to note:
- the choice to illustrate has been made for pre-paid data, possibly the most expensive form available
- the amount of mobile data obtained is for Euros 10 for a month
- there are better packages available from all the carriers, but often on a long term contract basis only.
The contrast above is stark. In two roughly comparable economies within the EU, one group of citizens has the opportunity to exploit the digital economy while the other, albeit with more sun, has pricing to discourage (even prevent) digital participation.
Why does this matter
‘Marginal freedom’ (defined as not having to worry whether you will have enough data left until your next opportunity to replenish) matters. To feel constrained is to inhibit the advantages of a digital connection.
Why are Estonia and Cyprus so different?
Boiled down it involves government commitment and investment:
- Estonia committed to 4G for every citizen (and with lots of other digital interconnections) across its territory
- Cyprus has preferred to continue with a quasi-governmental semi-monopoly format (Cyta remains under government control, abetted by Vodafone which behaves as an old, traditional telco if packaged up as a modern mobile one) – with no commitment to 4G for everyone.
If the EU wants to minimise the digital divide it will only be able to change ‘online habits’. This will happen when digital access is economically available to the broadest population. The contrast between Cyprus and Estonia (or Latvia) at the data level shocks. It is a variant on the identified Bulgaria or Greece compared to Estonia and Austria at the ‘1GB of data, 600 minutes of calls and 225 SMS messages’ level.