One of the discussions in the “Rzeczpospolita” Lounge focused on the issue of digital exclusion in the context of investments and competences.

- During the pandemic, many people started to use modern digital technologies. We had to learn how to navigate the digital world the hard way, as we have never before had to master the use of various applications, for example to conduct remote conferences, in such a short period of time. We have also been forced to handle our official and business matters online - commented Krzysztof Szubert, plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland for the UN Digital Summit - IGF 2021. - The number of the so-called trusted profiles has sharply increased. There were 4 million of them before the pandemic, no there are more than 10 million - he added.

Which groups of people are affected by digital exclusion?

Experts were discussing whether we can still talk about digital exclusion in the case of Poland. - The problem of digital exclusion resembles a syndrome, since usually more than one variable is at play. Areas most susceptible to this phenomenon include those less accessible in terms of transport, but also those suffering from depopulation and an above-average share of elderly people - explained Wojciech Pawlak, director of the NASK National Research Institute. As Mr Pawlak noted, however, one cannot rely solely on the indicators, as these are partly distorted. - Elderly people, which is understandable, are drivign down the average, but young people are pushing it up, because they spend about five hours online in addition to remote learning, as our research indicates. From the geographical perspective, we are dealing with digital exclusion mainly in the east of the country, in central Pomerania and in areas bordering the Kaliningrad region - commented Mr Pawlak.

- Orange sees two aspects of the problem of digital exclusion. Access to the Internet is only one side of the coin. The other is the ability to navigate the digital world. This is what the Orange Foundation has been helping to promote for 16 years. Of course, the pandemic has accelerated the acquisition of new digital skills by our customers, but there is still a lot to be done in that area - said Julien Ducarroz, President of Orange Polska. He emphasised that Orange has been investing in fibre-optic infrastructure for several years, which proved to be of crucial importance during the pandemic, since Poland, like the rest of the world, saw a sharp increase in demand for data transmission solutions. Currently, over 5.4 million households is using the operator's fibre-optic services. - We will continue these investments also in the context of the construction of the 5G network in Poland - added the head of Orange Polska.

New infrastructure

Jean-Marc Harion, CEO of P4 (Play network operator) agreed with these observations. - The pandemic has increased traffic in the network by almost 50 per cent. It has changed people’s digital behaviour. Currently there are over 6 million people using our mobile applications - said Mr Harion. In his opinion, a major risk for Poland is a division of its citizens into two groups of digitally competent and excluded people, if access to the Internet and the opportunity to learn how to use applications is not provided for everyone. - Further expansion of the infrastructure is needed, but as operators we should consider the possibility of its sharing, as it would not be economically justified for each of the four leading operators in Poland to build its own infrastructure only for its own needs - explained the head of Play.

- On the other hand, broadband and mobile network coverage alone is not enough. This is the first step, but what is of crucial importance are digital competences and skills, without which we will not be able to use applications to handle official or business matters. Education plays a key role, but demographic changes will also help to change the situation. Successive generations are taking advantage of digitalisation almost from the moment they are born - stressed Mr Ducarroz. He also commented on the construction of 5G networks. - Poland is a country that is to some extent lagging behind other EU Member States. We are waiting for the allocation of 5G frequency bands.

Poland needs these investments, but investors, including telecommunications companies, need predictability and stable conditions for investments, including tax regulations. Since these are long-term undertakings, it takes time for them to pay off. Over the last four years, Orange Polska has proved to be a reliable partner in terms of investments, including those co-financed from the “Digital Poland” operational programme. We aim to provide high-speed Internet access to the whole of Poland with fibre optic cables and the 5G mobile network by 2025 - announced Ducarroz.

- Poland is not among the top EU countries in terms of broadband networks, but this is partly due to the size of the country and the distribution of the population. This is a significant challenge for operators, but I believe that Poland is in a period when such investments will be accelerated for the benefit of all interested parties. As regards the situation in Poland, what worries me most is the NIMBY approach of people and separate telecommunications masts of four operators standing close to one another - Mr Harion explained.

- If we consider the DESI index showing the level of digitalisation of the economy and society, Poland is ranked far behind at 24th-25th. This is largely due to the low digitalisation of the SME sector, not the administration as it might seem. The latter is ranked 16th - Mr Szubert noted. As he explained, small and medium-sized businesses still are quite distrustful towards digitalisation, treating it as an additional cost rather than an investment. It is also a matter of education.

Partner of the debate: Orange Polska