Many of the countries that used to be stuck behind the Iron Curtain are recognized as strongholds of computer science. More than one multinational corporation or government institution in Western Europe and North America has been hit by a hacker-attack stemming from this region. However, malign activities online do not accurately characterize this region, which sits on a vast pool of talent that can be galvanized for economic growth through the so-called 3 Seas Digital Highway
One of the more ambitious projects within the digital sphere is the 3 Seas Digital Highway (3SDH) which was presented in a policy paper by the Polish Kościuszko Institution in June 2018 in cooperation with other NGOs from Estonia, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Croatia specializing in cybersecurity. The 3SDH was adopted at the Three Seas Initiative summit in Bucharest that year and was included among the Initiative’s official priority projects.
More than three decades after the fall of communism, the countries of Central Eastern Europe are quickly closing the gap with the richer countries in Western Europe but are still less developed economically. The digital highway is being developed to spur economic growth and improve people’s access to the most advanced technology available within telecommunications. In short, the backbone of the 3SDH project will be based on a network consisting of fiber optic cables and 5G infrastructure linking the region along a north-south axis.
The Three Seas Initiative is a forum for cooperation between 12 states in Central Eastern Europe, spanning from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria and Croatia in the south. It is primarily focused on economic cooperation and strengthening infrastructural links within the spheres of transport, energy and digitization. The digital highway is meant to strengthen cybersecurity and accelerate the pace of technological development through R&D in the region. Unlike some of the other projects, the 3SDH is still without detailed implementation schedules and estimated budgets.
Digital infrastructure in the 3 Seas
On the one hand, Bulgaria and Hungary are among EU and global leaders when it comes to the speed of data transmission onto mobile devices, whereas Romania excels in the availability of fixed ultrafast (exceeding 100 Mbps) broadband connection for households. On the other hand, shortcomings within digital infrastructure have created a gap between most EU member states in Western Europe where 99% of the population usually have access to fixed broadband Internet, with countries such as Estonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia that have Europe’s lowest score, not exceeding 90%.
The 3SDH is meant to remedy the situation as well as bring access to more advanced technology such as 5G, with all the implications it has for general R&D in the region. The digital highway will be capable of setting the foundations for projects that contribute to the development of modern digital economies and data-driven industries in the region, such as AI technology, cloud-based services and data centers, the autonomous vehicle industry, e-commerce centers and smart cities.
Hubs of importance
The inspiration for the 3SDH comes from the Baltic Highway launched in 2015, a fiber-optic network connecting Tallinn and Frankfurt via Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw and Berlin. The idea is for the Three Seas Initiative to develop a similar secure digital infrastructure along a north-south axis. This could potentially be done by installing it along gas pipelines and highways, such as Via Carpatia, that are currently built in that direction.
The Kosciuszko Institute policy paper that first proposed the 3SDH puts an emphasis on the importance of so-called data islands or hubs along the 3SDH that would provide safe and secure cloud computing and data storage. It is believed that such centers would contribute to creating new and strengthening the already existing Digital Innovation Hubs (DIH) that aim to promote technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as automation, the Internet of Things and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. These data islands are meant to stimulate cooperation between research units, entrepreneurs and the public sector.
Another important role is envisioned for large e-commerce centers in locations that are strategic for the entire region and which facilitate the export business. The policy paper mentions the Central Communication Port, a large transport hub under construction in Poland and the transport hub located in Constanța, Romania – the largest maritime port on the Black Sea.
The region’s education systems have traditionally been strong within STEM fields and many people are both tech and computer-savvy. Yet, there are still some places, particularly in rural regions, within the Three Seas where broadband access is still an issue. The 3SDH is a long-term project that is still far away on the horizon, but the first steps toward its implementation will have to be taken in the coming years if Central Eastern Europe is to take advantage of its tech-savvy talent pool.