To Be or Not To Be Digital? The Paradox of Romanian ICT Systems

Romania is the neighbor with such fast Wi-Fi you wish you could borrow their password. Ironically, it's also still a country overly reliant on actual paperwork due to a lack of digital enterprises and services.

Image projection on a woman using a smart phone.
Photo: iStock.com / brightstars

While most would assume advanced economies to be front-runners in digital and ICT matters, Romania’s appearance at the top of the rankings remains befuddling. This overperformance is derived from a successful turn of events: the transition and vacuum of regulations led to exacerbated competition, which fostered rapid modernization, dynamic adoption of new solutions, and extreme price adjustments.

Thus, enabled by this market race, savvy entrepreneurs shot for the moon and landed themselves and the country amongst the stars. However, it also resulted in uneven advancements, which has given rise to interesting dichotomies.

Impressive Romanian internet speed

For instance, in terms of infrastructure, Romania’s podium-taking speeds (top 5 in the EU, top 10 globally) give users the ability to download an entire season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” in 4K in about ten minutes, with broadband download averages around 180 and over 230 Mbps in urban areas, and even mobile downloads impressive at roughly half (100 Mbps – top 30 globally and top 10 in the EU). Both continue to grow by ¼ each year (at 15-20% for stationary internet and 28-35% for mobile).

As an added bonus, these services are the EU’s cheapest, even more affordable than Bulgaria or Moldova, with average plans costing the equivalent of a few cups of coffee, or 0.5% of the median income (broadband – 0.04 EUR/ 1 Mbps or 7 EUR monthly; mobile data – 0.4 EUR per 1 GB with 8.5 EUR monthly for unlimited at 4G+ to 5G speeds).

Despite such infrastructure, Bucharest has been planning for years to implement e-IDs, while its digital public services are Europe’s lowest, with three times fewer e-government solutions, users, or pre-filled forms than EU averages. That’s alongside two times fewer citizen and business platforms available.

A land of ICT contradictions

Adding to the contradiction is that Romania ranks top 3 in the EU regarding the percentage of ICT graduates, the proportion of female students pursuing it (also of those employed in the field), companies providing ICT training, and the share of employees with these specializations. All while remaining the lowest in terms of enterprises’ employment of specialists, proportion of ICT in the total workforce, and digital skills across all populations.

Moreover, when it comes to people behind the screen, their access doubled in under a decade, on par with CEE or even EU Big 5 trends, with over 84-88.9% (depending on the methodology used in the inquiry) of the population using the internet (surpassing France, Italy, and Greece), in addition to a similar trend on the mobile s1.5 social media penetration (while spending more than average times) or download over one billion unique apps each year (a EUR 210 mln market).

Also, although supported by just half of internet users (one of the EU’s lowest rates), online shopping amounted to the Ministry of Education’s budget (EUR 6.2 bln) last year, meaning that on average, people in Romania spent three times more than their colleagues in Hungary and 16 times those in Croatia. Besides this, online travel and touristic booking, which sometimes connects its diasporic flows, reached EUR 2.1 bln (with 80% average growth since the pandemic), adding to over EUR 300 mln spent on digital media (to ease transit times) and EUR 115 mln more for ordering food. Maybe it’s this predilection for takeout that has persuaded nearly ¼ of Romanians to have health monitoring devices.

ICT: unable to trickle down

Thus, with consumer tendencies like any other state, the industry rose to these levels despite ranking the lowest in SMEs digitalization (half of the EU median), business social media presence, or overall share of e-sales, without mentioning the adoption of advanced technologies (big data, AI, cloud, etc.) when even e-invoicing and online cross-border trade is lagging.

As such, we can note how a mirrored society emerged from these paradoxical stances. On one side, we have the projection of a state bearing strong infrastructure (even leading continental blockchain nodes, large data centers, EU interconnection hubs, etc.), globally renowned ICT conglomerates, highly productive sectors, and innovation rates, headquarters of NATO and EU cyber institutions, and so on. While on the other side, there is the reflection of a nation unable to cascade these breakthroughs into even simple matters like administrative platforms, digital records, citizens’ abilities, business presence, and transparency, amongst others.

So, while businesses and the public kickstarted this trend, authorities need to ensure its continuity and that Romania remains a performer across all areas.

Christopher Radovici

is a Ph.D. student at the Bucharest University of Economics, former Westminster graduate, specializing in CEE and EU Neighborhood affairs, involved in several cross-disciplinary research projects across Europe and with a series of active publications and conference participations in the field of IR, FP and Macroeconomics. Private and Civil Society - Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Gold finalist, alumni of Alpbach, Aspen and SUSI, actively contributing to various civil society organization and think-tanks in the Danube Region, while also having been the founder of a social entrepreneurship start-up.

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