EU pushes public sector online

The European Commission has just raised the bar for all national and regional public sector services, arguing at the end of May that its initial target of getting all schools online has largely been met.

The next goal is to get public services such as schools, hospitals and local authorities to trade up to broadband, said Erkki Liikanen, the Commissioner for enterprise and the information society.

"We have come a long way, especially with schools, in getting public services online. However very few such services have broadband connection so they fail to make full use of the Internet's potential," Liikanen said.

According to a survey by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, commissioned by Liikanen's department, Internet penetration in schools in Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Finland, Germany and the U.K. is just under 100 percent. Spain lags the furthest behind with just 59 percent of its schools being wired up to the Internet.

However, research by Flash Eurobarometers estimated that broadband access to the Internet in schools is still rare. Its report for the European Commission found that just under 20 percent of European schools have an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service, and only five percent of schools have cable access. A quarter of all schools still use dial-up phone lines, while the 60 percent have an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connection.

Local and national government offices have moved onto the Internet in droves, the commissioner said. Sweden tops a recent list of nations taking their basic public services online. Between October 2001 and April this year Sweden reported a 20 percent increase in the number of electronic government Web sites.

Belgium and Spain also saw sharp improvements, according to research by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. The slowest adoption rate of e-government services came from Portugal, Finland and the Netherlands. All three saw an increase of around 5 percent.

The slow growth in the latter two countries could be because e-government there is nearing saturation, Liikanen said.

But without broadband, e-government can't offer the most valuable service: interactivity. "There are a lot of e-government Web sites out there but interactive services are still very underdeveloped," Liikanen said.

The Commissioner is responsible for nurturing the growth of the online community in the European Union. However, he has no power to force public administrations in the 15 member states. Instead the Commission benchmarks, or monitors, the progress made in each country and sets targets.

The latest target is outlined in the e-Europe 2000 plan Liikanen unveiled at the end of May. National and local governments should have fully interactive websites by the end of 2004, the plan says, and all schools should have broadband access to the Internet by the end of 2005.

Money to fund the hoped for technological step forward must come from existing European and national budgets. Some

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