The European Union's executive office on Tuesday called on the governments of member nations to do more to get people online, saying only 13 percent of the union's 450 million people have broadband Internet access.
If governments act now to boost investment in high-speed networks in remote and rural areas, all EU citizens could have such access by 2010, said Viviane Reding, the EU's information technology commissioner.
The EU has been pushing for expanded Internet access as a way to increase productivity and growth. Leaders at a two-day EU summit opening Thursday in Brussels are expected to discuss ways to improve those efforts.
High-speed broadband networks have made significant gains in recent years, but mostly in urban areas or flat, densely populated nations like the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.
The European Commission hopes that subsidies for public-private undertakings from its euro70 billion ($85 billion) rural development fund will be used by governments to close the digital divide.
Wired cities like London have citywide, high-speed grids, but broadband penetration remains almost nonexistent in places like rural Greece and Eastern European nations that joined the EU in 2004.
One of the main challenges is making expansion into less-populated, rural areas commercially viable for Internet service providers.
"Deployment of broadband may be hampered by market failures in rural and remote areas," EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes told a news conference with Reding.
She said well-targeted subsidies could build open networks and increase competition to make broadband costs more affordable.
"Public-private partnerships are therefore needed to roll out the broadband technology mix that best reflects local needs and makes its benefits affordable," Kroes said.
Only 13 percent of the EU population — or about 25 percent of households — have broadband access, according to EU data.
The Netherlands, Denmark and Finland have the highest penetration rates (between 20 percent and 25 percent), followed by Sweden (19 percent), Belgium (18 percent), Britain and France (both 15 percent) and Luxembourg (14 percent).
The other 19 nations are below the EU average of 15 percent, especially the newcomer nations but also Italy and Spain, where broadband reaches only 10 percent of the population.