On June 15 and 16, the Rural Pact Conference brought together in Brussels a large number of rural stakeholders (from public authorities to civil society, business and the research community). The Rural Action Plan, which was adopted with the Long-term Vision for the EU’s rural areas, represents the European Commission’s commitment to acting for rural areas. The Rural Pact, included in the Rural Action Plan, aims to strengthen multi-level governance for the EU’s rural areas. This means that it will engage the European, national, regional and local level, all of which have a key role to play in the future of rural areas, to work together.
Digitalisation is a key component of European policies to strengthen rural areas. For this reason, the “Rural Pact Conference” included a session on June 16 devoted to “Digitalisation, transforming rural areas” led by DG Connect.
The session contributed to the “EU Rural Action Plan” with the tangible flagship initiative “Rural Digital Futures”, and showcased new opportunities for the deployment of high-performance gigabit networks and 5G mobile as well as in the area of digitalisation. Flagships refer to long-term and large-scale research initiatives, paving the way with an ambitious vision. The EU’s flagships in digital focus on future and emerging technologies and run for around 10 years. They mobilise researchers, academics, industry and national programs to tackle major challenges in science and technology.
The session explored how to close the connectivity gap between rural and urban areas, encourage digital innovation and the use of new technologies, boost new competencies needed for the digital transformation and measure the progress towards closing the digital gap.
Prof. Mar Delgado from the University of Cordoba was the rapporteur of the session, and the session was moderated by Mr. Alfons Schöps from atene KOM.
Three speakers shaped the content of this session:
- Franco Accordino, Head of the Unit "Investment in High-Capacity Networks" at the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT) in the European Commission. He talked about “Gigabit and 5G connectivity - Connectivity as an essential enabler for the digital transition”.
- Fabio Nasarre de Letosa, Senior Legal Expert in the Unit responsible for Investment in High Capacity Networks of DG CONNECT. He mapped rural connectivity in the EU on the basis of the most recent data collected by the European Commission, highlighting progress and challenges. He highlighted the most relevant EU initiatives in the areas of regulation, policy and State Aid and the opportunities offered by the unprecedented level of financial support currently available for rural digitalization.
- Willeke van Staalduinen, CEO of AFEdemy (Age Friendly Environments Academy), a political scientist, who also worked as a nurse in mental healthcare. In 2017 she co-founded AFEdemy, age-friendly environments academy, to support the capacity building of stakeholders to implement smart healthy age-friendly environments. She is the Vice-Chair and Grant Holder of the COST Action NET4Age-Friendly. The title of her presentation was “The eHealth applications in rural areas”.
After the presentations, the participants had the opportunity to exchange their experiences with digitalisation in their respective rural areas and share their conclusions. The discussion revealed significant differences and room for improvement, especially in the promotion of broadband expansion in the EU member states, but also the many ways in which the participants are contributing with concrete initiatives to progress in this area.
Especially in the areas of health policy and agriculture, in production and in the area of logistics, the stakeholders made it clear that it is essential to be able to rely on the densification of the 5G network and digitalization. A well-developed digital infrastructure is vital for rural areas. By 2030 at the latest, a high capacity must be available for everyone. The various points of the system must be better networked with each other. Systems should be adapted to people.
Recent developments such as the pandemic have shown that things can develop very quickly and the need to adapt accordingly. A recent trend highlighted was increasing numbers of people leaving cities and moving to rural regions. Here, people expect greater investment, for example to enable mobile working from home in rural areas.