European leaders to agree Internet strategy

European leaders are set to agree sweeping legislation to put Europe at the forefront of the digital revolution at an EU summit in Lisbon Friday.

The cost of getting online will be top of the agenda, with the European Commission calling for member states to unbundle local loops -- where incumbent telcos open their networks to other operators -- by the end of this year. BT and Oftel have currently set a July 2001 timetable for UK unbundling.

It is also expected leaders will agree a framework for a unified European telecommunications infrastructure, with a high speed link between academic institutions and governments put in place by 2003.

The EU will recommend adoption by member states of the E-commerce directive, which sets the legal framework for e-commerce, by the end of the year. Plans to make it easier to set up start-ups, get hold of venture capital funding will also be discussed. The social implications of the Internet revolution, generating a computer-literate workforce, will also be on the agenda.

E-Minister Patricia Hewitt, recently returned from a tour of US high tech companies, is hopeful the EU summit will help put Europe on the Internet map. "The purpose of the summit is to put in place an Internet strategy for the EU as a whole," she says. "I expect the heads of state to confirm they are driving through liberalisation of the telecommunications market."

Hewitt admits US government and tech leaders see the continued use of metered Internet calls as the biggest barrier to a flourishing e-commerce economy in Europe.