By Erzsébet Fitori, Group Head of EU Affairs & Relations
We all have our stories of how the pandemic affected us. For me, it struck last spring just as I was getting ready to join Vodafone as their Group Head of EU Affairs and Relations in Brussels. But the lockdown meant the typical onboarding rituals – introductions to staff, settling into a new office – were skipped. I began my new job at home. Thankfully, high-speed connections helped mitigate the extraordinary circumstances. Connectivity became my lifeline. Without these tools, joining a company, during the pandemic would just simply not have been possible.
Nonetheless, working from home concentrated my mind on what really matters for Vodafone in Europe. As we shift from survival mode to recovery and then to rebuilding, we need to understand what will help us come out of this crisis stronger – and put us in the right place for the challenges of the coming decade.
The short answer is connectivity. Digital connectivity will not only drive Europe’s recovery but will help shape Europe’s future. And at Vodafone, we can help enable this.
Vodafone’s own role has shifted over the years from becoming a voice operator to becoming an enabler of all forms of communications, either person-to-person or machine-to-machine. And our role as an enabler is changing, we are working with businesses and administrations, from manufacturing and SMEs, from farming to health, from education to transport. We are the main enabler of their digital transformation and their new ways of operating.
These are all amazing opportunities. And the EU has seen this. It has set clear targets for connectivity over the next nine years, as evidenced by the new and ambitious Digital Decade 2030 targets. These targets are imperative to Europe’s future resilience and competitiveness, but the execution of these goals must be equally progressive if we are to get where we need to go by the end of the decade.
The truth is that we are in danger of missing the targets if we rely solely on the Recovery and Resilience Funds. Our unique Gap Analysis report, which we recently commissioned with Deloitte, has shown that Europe is already falling behind on vital indicators, and that despite underpinning every single one of the Digital Compass targets, connectivity infrastructure looks set to receive the lowest allocation of RRF across 20 Member States. We need to correct course - and do so extremely quickly.
It might not be immediately obvious to realise what is really at stake here. If European industries cannot digitalise fast enough, they will fall behind their American, Chinese and other peers around the world. Connectivity has changed from being a one-to-one line to an enabler of productivity. And we can already see that on several of these metrics - on connectivity, on 5G, on gigabit connectivity - Europe currently lags rivals.
This has implications within Europe too. Digital transformation is also about bridging digital divides. We need to get connectivity and digital services to remote and rural areas, to communities that have been or would be left behind.
We see the rural challenge as beyond farming. While there is obviously huge potential in precision farming and digital agriculture, the opportunities are in bringing manufacturing, SMEs, healthcare and education to these areas. This has knock-on effects: digital connectivity can also help reduce the cost of public services. Smart hospitals, telemedicine and connected schools can cut the economic burdens, like transport costs – and, of course, also reduce the carbon footprint.
Surveys show that seven out of ten people in rural areas see digital connectivity as more important than actually having healthcare facilities or transport. There is a chicken and egg situation: we want to grow rural areas, but to do that, we need to have the right infrastructure. And at the heart of that is connectivity.
How can we address these issues? The EU’s recovery, resilience and growth strategies are all linked to the digital transformation. We need a holistic strategy to not only achieve the targets but to tie broader economic and social challenges together into a coherent and consistent framework. We need policies that will incentivise investment.
This comes back to my idea of Vodafone as an enabler. We see ourselves as more than a market operator. We see ourselves as delivering vital services, as performing a public good. As connecting for a better future.
At the outbreak of the pandemic, Vodafone sprang into action to help. We ramped up the capacity of our networks because of the increased demand. We helped with online education and healthcare services. We responded to the crisis with solutions.
Now we can work on the new challenges. We can help with the digitalisation of businesses and public administrations. We can help deliver digital skills. We can build sustainable digital infrastructure.
But without connectivity, you can't really achieve the other bits. Connectivity is the foundation.
And that’s why we need to work with the EU and national governments. We need to show that this is about a partnership between industry, policymakers and citizens, to help deliver the paradigm shift in policy Europe needs. We must find new ways to collaborate to help everyone access vital services and data that can address some of the challenges we collectively face. And at Vodafone, we need to ensure we can be the enablers for this transformation.
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