IT's Like This: What's wrong with Europe?

Well apart from a raft of leaders who agree on very little, telcos that systematically mug their customers and a population that is being dragged through the electronics revolution by a country determined to turn us into an export wilderness... very little.

Well apart from a raft of leaders who agree on very little, telcos that systematically mug their customers and a population that is being dragged through the electronics revolution by a country determined to turn us into an export wilderness... very little.

What's wrong with Europe may have been a leading question for the final round of talks at the IDC e-commerce forum in Monaco this week, but it did the trick. People got passionate about the issue -- IDC can congratulate itself on a job well done.

Throughout the two-day event speaker after speaker focused on a fragmented Europe with its various factions struggling to keep up with America on the e-commerce dream. In Finland, Net penetration is at an all time high with 31 percent of the population on the Net. In Italy, only 6 percent are using the 20th century's greatest communication tool. Southern Europe is tipped to see rapid growth in the coming years, but some believe it will be too little too late.

Puni Rajah, IDC's director of European Services Industry Research was careful in her opening address saying Europe was "not lagging, but there is something wrong". The gifted mediator was clever. We all knew from the information IDC had given us Europe is behind, but her question prompted passionate exchanges. Far from normal in the stale world of technology.

First off was the marvelously charismatic Marco Llandi, former president of Apple Europe, now President of BMC EMEA. He got the debate going by presenting the audience with eight reasons why Europe was failing to keep up with the Americans.

  • Cost of hardware and software is generally higher in Europe

  • Level of computer literacy is generally lower in Europe

  • Cost of connection is higher in Europe

  • Cost of communication is higher in Europe

  • Language barriers

  • Cultural barriers

  • Fragmented markets

  • Telco regulation, finance and traditional European bureaucracy.

Llandi argued that European e-commerce was being hobbled by inherent cultural differences that will only disappear if Europe is united. American children are growing up in a society where email and Net usage is commonplace. In contrast, he said, European children are still -- just months away from the new millennium -- being denied access to computers and the Internet for myriad reasons.

Entrepreneurs in Europe, according to Llandi, are essentially cowards who shy away from the challenge of seeding innovative technology startups. But he didn't leave it there. Financing, venture capital, stock options, all the things the Americans take for granted are still relatively unheard of in Europe.

At what cost?

Again IDC took no chances -- the panel was up to the challenge of painting a clear picture. If things don't change, European people will find themselves at the wrong end of a revolution that could shackle entire nations condemning them to the subculture Rajah had told me about a day earlier.

Arnold Cobbaert VP of e-business at EDS believes in Europeans uniting to prevent the type of segregation he terms "information apartheid". It is a powerful moniker for a situation we are approaching fast: clumps of Europe struggling to deal with e-commerce and in the struggle missing out on the $3.2tn bounty IDC promises by 2003. Countries that don't get involved will pay a painful price... or rather their people will.

The only British representative, Laurence Blackhall -- chairman of the Internet Service Providers Association -- launched a furious assault on European telecoms monopolies, accusing them of doing more damage to e-commerce and Net development in Europe than any other single factor. Analysts and journalists nodded their heads in agreement. The only dissenter? A regulator from the Netherlands.

Blackhall's attack is on the nose. How can a country -- any country -- expect to have a presence in the global market if its citizens are prevented from using the Net because of call rates? That $3.2tn bounty is less than four years away and still the Germans, French, British, Spanish -- they're all paying to much, because they're paying.

But let's forget about the money, if that's possible. What about the people?

Cobbaert, Rajah, Llandi, Blackhall -- all intelligent people whose business it is to study this market -- agree that unless European governments take action now to take power away from the telecoms monopolies people, as well as companies, will suffer. Europe won't be able to compete. Its people won't have the skills to engage the Americans in electronic commerce and this region will become an export target for Clinton's army of entrepreneurs.

There's nothing new here. All this has been said before and the battles organisations such as CUT (Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications) have been fighting are more important than we are prepared to admit. We are close to an era where Europeans are in danger of being marginalised by the selfish tactics of their telecoms companies and the ignorance/apathy of their governments.

Marco Llandi: "It is time to come together in Europe. Forget all the cultural differences. Get rid of the monopoly telcos and act as one to secure a future for our people. We must do it now or the price will be great."

Indeed it will.

Can Europe expect to be a service state to America if its governments don't act?

Do European governments understand what is at risk?

What should governments do about the telco monopolies?

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