hungary-internet
Internet

Rural Hungarians get online

Hungary is starting to bridge its digital divide according to a recent report from market research firm eNet. The country’s internet penetration has been growing steadily over the last few years while rural internet users are also catching up with the urban customers.

eNet’s survey focused particularly on the differences between urban and rural internet users. Unsurprisingly, urban users have the edge and have been online for much longer and more frequently but the divide between cities and rural Hungary has narrowed significantly. “Internet surfing is no longer a prerogative of the urban population but is part of everyday practice across all community types,” says the report.

Only slight differences were found between rural and urban internet users when it came to general opinions of the internet. Most agreed equally on its usefulness in day to day life, both personally and professionally, while a number of respondents said they would happily give up their TV service if it meant keeping their internet subscription.

According to eNet, a staggering 99% of respondents, regardless of where they live all have internet access at home. However in cities, there is much higher use of mobile internet. Overall, internet subscriptions in the country (with a population of about nine million) have grown by 12% since last year too, now standing at 7.4m subscribers, says Hungary’s Central Statistical Office (KSH).                                                                                                              

These findings are not without its critics though. Péter Gyöngyösi, product manager at IT security firm Balabit Blindspotter says they are not totally realistic.

Citing a February European Commission report, he says that Hungarian home internet use actually stands at 61%.

“This is the fifth weakest status and it also shows that Hungary is quite weak at the ‘out of workplace and home’ access spots, such as library, internet cafe access,” says Gyöngyösi. eNet’s survey for example focuses on the home and workplace.

That same EU report notes that while internet access grew from 2013 to 2014, some countries experienced a “slight decreases”, Hungary among them, along with Ireland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia.

“So, it could be that the digital divide has decreased in Hungary but...overall, we would not consider it a revolutionary or especially good result,” says Gyöngyösi.

Typically countries struggle with narrowing the digital divide between cities and the countryside. Larger cities tend to get online first and with the fastest services while small towns and villages lag behind. This is no clearer than in the US. Only in recent times has the digital divide began to shrink, since 2000, shown in a recent study from the Pew Research Center but there are still significant gaps between the rich and poor, old and young, as well as racial and ethnic divides. A separate Pew study from April also found that just over 30% of US homes with incomes below $50,000 and with children ages six to 17 don’t have a high-speed internet connection.

In Europe, the EU’s fight for the digital single market is hoped to bring businesses into the digital age, especially when it comes to selling online. The Digital Agenda for Europe was tasked with bridging the divide and under Neelie Kroes made great strides but according to figures from the EU last year, there are still about 20% of people that have never used the internet.

Most countries have a high rate of access on average across the EU but rural areas have not advanced at the same pace when it comes to speed and efficiency. EU projects like Broadband to the Villages in Finland have attempted to address this while individual country programs are making bold promises about rural internet speeds for the future.

A year ago the KSH said the country is below the EU average. The average EU internet penetration is 76.5% and the most recent figures from Internet Live Stats in 2014 show Hungary stands at 74.3%, a growth of 2% on the prior year. With the myriad reports on internet use in Europe, there are some mixed signals about just how many people are online and how frequently.

While not reaching the same lofty heights as Germany (86.7%) or Netherlands (96%), Hungary’s penetration is still appears to be growing, thanks largely to improved speeds. Internet performance has reached a new impressive peak connection speed, according to Akamai’s latest state of the internet report, joining the 50mbps ranks at the same time as the UK.

International players have had the most profound effect on Hungary. Deutsche Telekom pledged to “invest billions” in 2014 to connect every home by 2018. Deutsche Telekom already owns a 59% stake in Magyar Telekom, Hungary’s largest telecom, which has been growing its ARPU and investing in its 4G network, according to the company’s latest financial report.

“Broadband expansion is supported by large scale modernization of the mobile network,” said the report.

“We have commenced an intensive fixed network development program, whereby we will enlarge our High Speed Internet coverage by 440,000 households in Hungary over the next three quarters,” said CEO Christopher Mattheisen on the forthcoming growth.

Secondly, according to Dyn, Budapest has become an important regional hosting city while Google has opened up new offices there.

That is not to say that everything has been plain sailing in recent years for Hungarians and the internet. The Viktor Orban-led government, in late 2014, attempted to introduce a new tax on internet data traffic. The proposal was highly criticised by the EU as unworkable. Ultimately it was ditched following massive protests in Budapest as well as opposition from corporate interests. “This tax in its current form cannot be introduced,” said Orban after dropping the proposal and no similar tax has been proposed since.

Orban rarely backs down on his government’s position, often moving ahead with proposals opposed by the EU, but the vociferous response to taxes that would endanger the internet in Hungary was swift and showed how it has been embraced by the population to secure a digital-minded future.

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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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