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Is Continent Doomed To Information Highway’s Slow Lane?

February 23, 1995

BERLIN (AP) _ Asked by a software manager in a television appearance what needed to be done to improve access to the ``data superhighway,″ Chancellor Helmut Kohl thought the question was about the autobahn.

``We all know what it’s like to be stuck in traffic,″ said Kohl, who doesn’t use computers, let alone modems.

The chancellor’s lack of techno-savvy, widely criticized in German news media last year, is typical of western European leaders. Their failure to herald the Information Age’s arrival has cost them millions of jobs.

Leaders of the industrialized world gather in Brussels, Belgium, this weekend for the first global Information Society conference. The European Union will host the heads of 45 international high-tech corporations and political cyberspace activists such as Vice President Al Gore for three days of talks on breaking down barriers so new technologies can improve living standards.

Europe’s technology elite are worried about being stuck in the slow lane of the information highway.

``We are at least four years behind the United States,″ said Juergen Ziessnitz, managing director of Europe Online in Luxembourg. He plans to launch the first European on-line service by July _ with American software, AT&T’s Interchange.

After five years of effort, Klaus Fueller has succeeded in getting 250 German schools access to the Internet, but only by electronic mail. His students got firsthand reports about the Kobe earthquake from Japanese youngsters last month.

``We are drilling small holes in thick walls,″ Fueller said. ``We can’t even exchange (electronic) mail with students in France.″

While everyone from rebels in Mexico to peace activists in Sarajevo are getting their messages out via the Internet, western Europeans are still showering one another with faxes.

The prime ministers of Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands are among the few European leaders on the Internet, where Gore has been holding electronic court for two years.

The Continent is suddenly awash in Info Age initiatives: Germany’s Deutsche Telekom announced an interactive television pilot project last week and has promised cheap Internet service this spring.

But the damage of late arrival is clear.

European unemployment began climbing to its current 11 percent just as the marriage of computers and telecommunications reached critical mass in the United States.

``Since 1990, unemployment has been climbing fast, wiping out virtually all those 10 million jobs we had created in the late 1980s,″ European Union employment commissioner Padraig Flynn wrote last year.

In a watershed report last May, an EU study group said countries slow to embrace the Infobahn ``could, in less than a decade, face disastrous declines in investment and a squeeze on jobs.″

Just over one in 10 western Europeans have computers in their homes, compared to nearly one in two Americans.

Dieter Rath, spokesman for the Federation of German Industry, blames excessive government regulation, inflexible state telecommunications monopolies, cultural resistance and simple economics.

``There are 2 million teleworkers in the United States, a few hundred thousand in the United Kingdom and a few thousand in Germany,″ he said.

Software is about twice as expensive as in the United States.

And although computer prices are dropping, German computer freaks still find it cheaper to fly to New York to buy a laptop than to purchase the same machine at home.

The European Union has ordered state telephone monopolies to allow competition by 1998, which would lower telecommunication rates.

Also discouraging people from getting on line have been licensing requirements for modems that can take as long as a year for manufacturers to obtain. By then, a new modem standard has arrived.

Modem prices dropped steeply last year and sales are up.

But Europe is far behind the U.S. market. Just 6.2 percent of western Europe’s 146 million households have computers with modems, the market research firm Dataquest estimates.

``I don’t think we’re really surfing the Internet yet. I would say we’re just dipping our toes in the water,″ said Dataquest-Europe analyst Helen Pickance. ``The Internet is still mostly being used for electronic mail.″

The Internet is well developed in Europe, which has 22.7 percent of its host computers, but it’s not yet easily accessible and as affordable as in the United States.

Europe has no shortage of information technology innovators.

There is Tim Berners-Lee, a Briton who was at the European Particle Physics Lab in Geneva when he invented the World Wide Web, the software that has made the Internet user-friendly.

Yet a September survey for the networking company 3Com found more than two-thirds of Britain’s managing directors did not understand the phrase ``information superhighway.″

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