EU plays catch-up with US at dot com summit

At tomorrow's Stockholm Summit, small businesses and schools will be targeted in the push to boost European e-commerce

The 15 leaders of the European Union will meet tomorrow to discuss plans to boost e-commerce in Europe to make it more competitive against the US and the Asia Pacific.

European Commissioners have expressed concern that although the EU now has as many Internet users as the US -- following a big increase last year in the number of connected households -- most of this use is still for passive activities such as information searches and downloads.

To tackle the issue, the EC plans to focus its attention on schools and small businesses. In advance of the Summit, the EC has set new targets for Internet access in schools. Among the recommendations are that every five school children should have at least one PC to share between them, teachers should be trained to use the Internet, that curricula must be adapted and member states should upgrade Internet access for schools to high bandwidth. The new targets are contained in a communication on the Impact and Priorities of the eEurope 2002 Initiative.

And tomorrow, EC officials will detail plans to get more small to medium-sized businesses online. They have expressed concern at figures that show only 42 percent of European SMEs are online, and in some countries the percentage is less than the number of people online. Only 20 percent of European SMEs use the Internet for commercial transactions.

But getting SMEs online and trading over the Internet is critical to Europe's plans, say the commissioners. Some initiatives aimed at promoting this were published last week in advance of the Summit, in the Commission's GoDigital Directive. A benchmarking system to measure the effectiveness of national policies will be introduced, and efforts will be made to provide small businesses with relevant and user-friendly information on legal and regulatory issues of e-business.

Erkki Liikanen, the European Commissioner responsible for enterprise and information society, said the real e-commerce revolution is in the business-to-business markets. "It concerns all businesses and it is of strategic importance especially for SMEs," he said. "As more and more companies restructure to embrace e-commerce, it becomes vital for SMEs to be on-line to do business with such companies."

However, skills shortages remain a major obstacle to Europe's online ambitions, according to a survey published to coincide with the Summit. Four out of five respondents to the survey, which canvassed 350 senior managers in leading businesses throughout Europe, said skills shortages had adversely affected their business. Almost half -- 44 percent -- said the effect had been severe.

Furthermore, 81 percent of respondents said they expected the situation to worsen over the next 12 months. A major concern highlighted by the survey was the difficulty in cross-border hiring, with 78 expressing concern at the complexity and red tape involved and the same number saying that easier cross-border recruiting would help solve the problem.

The research was commissioned by recruitment consultancy TMP Worldwide, the owner of Monster.com. According to Andrew Grant, chief executive of TMP's worldwide resource division, less than 0.5 percent of European workers move from country to country. "In many cases it is not that Europe doesn't have the skills, just that they are in the wrong place," he said. Grant said that such issues, together with a lack of training would cause Europe too lose out to North America and the Asia Pacific region.

Europe's proposals to speed Internet adoption:

  • Schools should get one PC for every five children.

  • Teachers should be trained to use the Internet.

  • Curricula must be adopted to address the Internet and other new technologies.

  • Schools should be upgraded to high bandwidth links.

  • Basic services such as tax declarations and car registrations should be available online by the end of 2002.

  • An early warning system should be established to help information exchange on security threats between member states. In its initial phase this will rely on existing structure for information exchange mechanisms , such as national computer emergency response teams, and the public and private sectors.

  • The legal framework for e-commerce needs to be rapidly transposed to national laws especially the e-commerce and e-signature directives.

  • The next generation Internet protocol (IPv6) should be implemented to support the growing demands on the network. This will make the number of Internet addresses practically limitless.

  • The regulatory framework for radio spectrum policy should be adopted "without delay".

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