The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass that has shown with absolute clarity that Europe needs to move up a gear in its digital transformation.
Indeed, the health crisis is drastically impacting our daily lives, and as a result, the relevance of digital applications and services is accelerating. For example, we suddenly see an increased need for communication services, tools for remote collaboration, and fast and reliable access to data, whether it’s from the office, the home or somewhere in between.
In other words, the pandemic has signified the importance for Europe of having access to the best physical and digital infrastructure. That is, the physical resources that are necessary to enable the use of data, computerised devices, methods, systems and processes.
Regarding physical infrastructure per se, it is clear that the deployment of very high capacity networks, and specifically 5G, will for example, open new ways of working in areas such as manufacturing, media, automotive, media and healthcare, allowing for both increased productivity and completely new user experiences.
To the extent that very high capacity networks will allow Europe to take a quantitative leap benefiting an entire ecosystem of technologies, such as virtualization, cloud computing, edge computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, network slicing, or automation.
However, in order to do so the EU must first ensure that the recently adopted Electronic Communications Code is implemented correctly. Let us not forget that the Code sets a regulatory treatment that ensures predictability, reward risk-taking and long-term investment in very high capacity networks and support the rapid development of 5G communications.
In addition, we must continue to eliminate persisting obstacles for gigabit infrastructure deployment: Despite gigabit fibre and 5G networks being a necessary precondition to achieve European digital sovereignty, such infrastructures are still not widespread. The European Union must increase cooperation across sectors and exploit synergies (e.g. with energy, water, transport) by creating the condition for more efficient deployment of new physical infrastructure so that the networks can be rolled out at lower cost. In this regard, and taking into account that civil engineering, such as the digging-up of roads to lay down high-speed broadband, accounts for up to 80% of the cost of deploying broadband networks Europe needs to review the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive as soon as possible.
Nevertheless, in today’s data economy while having the adequate physical infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic growth and higher productivity, this is only part of the story.
Digital infrastructure, understood as the physical resources that are necessary to enable the use of data, computerised devices, methods, systems and processes, is the other part of the story.
More specifically Europe must focus on reinforcing capacities in high performance computing, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
It must no longer be acceptable that while the EU currently consumes one third of high performance computing resources worldwide it provides only around 5%, pushing EU scientists and engineers to turn massively to computing resources outside Europe.
Let us not forget that, Europe remains dependant on US chipmakers and three American companies dominate the global chip market. China, on the other hand, is leading in supercomputer research. It is number one and number two on the list of the highest performing computer in the world (“Sunway TaihuLight”is).
To tackle this crucial element, we need to increase investment and spend in a smart way. From this perspective, the recent European Council conclusions of the 2nd of October are very welcome. Not only because at least 20% of the funds under the Recovery and Resilience Facility will be made available for the digital transition, also because the European Council expressly indicated that these funds should help advance objectives such as “fostering the European development of the next generation of digital technologies, including supercomputers”.
In addition, the EU must continue to work in initiatives such as the recent partnership between the European Commission and the European Investment Fund to set up a pan European venture capital fund-of-funds programme (which as you know allocates 410 million euros to invest in European venture capital market and is expected to raise an additional 2.100 million Euros from public and private investment).
Moreover, as I have said, it is not only about the quantity, but also of how it is spent.
In that sense, it is worth underlining the role of the first ever Digital Europe programme whereby the Commission proposed and Parliament has supported, to invest, €9.2 billion in the operational requirements of capacity building in the areas of high performance computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced digital skills.
Lastly, it must be stressed that, even with the best infrastructure possible, Europe’s growth potential will be determined by the skills of its population and workforce.
Consequently, the EU must promote a reskilling revolution that supports digital skills and competences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, entrepreneurship and creativity.
Clearly much of the success of all of these measures will depend of the willingness of all actors, and especially of the Member States, to act together. I am confident however, that one of the most important lessons that we have learnt from the crisis is that we must act united. The coronavirus crisis is sadly a perfect example.