The European Parliament adopted new rules aimed at deploying high-speed telecoms networks on Tuesday (15 April), paving the way for wider Internet coverage of rural and poorer areas.
A long debate has taken place in recent years about how best to spur telecom investment in new, high-speed networks.
The financial crisis, and the fundamental reluctance of many top companies to invest in a new market that could damage their existing business models, have kept investment low in Europe.
The proposal adopted by Parliament Tuesday tries to promote a team-spirit amongst infrastructure builders and managers, with the aim of lowering costs for everyone.
‘Less digging and more broadband’
Civil engineering represents around 80% of the all costs of deploying new networks, according to the European Commission.
The proposed regulation, which still needs the approval of member states, envisages using existing networks, such as ducts, conduits or manholes, to roll out fibre cables. This would largely decrease costs of digging and building new infrastructure, the Commission claims.
The EU Executive estimates savings for the rolling out of NGAs can represent as much as 30% of total costs.
This would also derive from improved coordination of civil works, as agreed by the Commission and Parliament.
Maintenance activities would be done at the same time for several infrastructures. In practice, instead of digging twice to do road maintenance and perform upgrades, the new rules would encourage coordinated planning of civil works.
“Less digging and more broadband,” the Commission proclaimed in a statement yesterday.
The main objective is “to exploit synergies across networks in order to reduce the cost of rolling out high speed networks.
Electronic communications could be put in place at the same time as physical infrastructure such as electricity, gas, water, sewage, heating and transport services,” explained Edit Herczog, the Socialists and Democrats MEP, who steered the Commission proposal through Parliament.
Higher car safety with eCall
In a separate vote, the Parliament also approved a proposal on so-called eCall equipment for cars.
From 2015, all new vehicles in Europe will have to be equipped with a system that automatically calls the EU emergency number 112 in case of accident.
“EU-wide eCall is a big step forward for road safety. When you need emergency support, it is much better to be connected than to be alone,” said Neelie Kroes, the EU Digital Agenda commissioner.
The EU Executive estimates that the automatic eCall of the emergency number can speed up emergency response times by 50% in cities and 40% in rural areas, where hospitals tend to be more distant. It could prevent up to 2500 road deaths a year, according to the Commission.
It would also entail an important effort from the industry, as at the moment, eCall systems are embedded in only 0.7% of all cars circulating in the EU.
However, higher costs for carmakers will be compensated by reduced costs for societies and communities, in terms of fewer deaths and injuries, which cost up to €130 billion a year, says the Commission.
As the Internet becomes an essential service for everyday activities such as shopping, banking and entertainment, those with low-speed connections or no connections at all risk being left behind.
To counter this new form of inequality, the European Commission in March proposed making it easier and cheaper to deploy new networks.
Works to dig new lines and connect them to homes can be highly costly however. Returns push operators to invest, but not in areas with a low population density where costs are likely to exceed gains.
As a consequence, many European regions are left without proper coverage.
Standard broadband covered 96.1% of total EU households in 2013, but the percentage goes down to 83.2% for rural homes, according to the European Commission.
Moreover, standard connections are usually low-speed. Only 14.8% of European fixed broadband lines provide a headline download speed of at least 30 Megabyte per second (Mbps), which is the minimum required to access certain services online, such as streaming. Some of them go as low as 2 Mbps.
Often, the headline speed is not even provided. The average speed is 75% lower than promised, says the European Commission. In the UK and in France the actual speed "can be as low as 45% of advertised speed,” according to the EU executive.
Optical fibre networks, also known as Next Generation Access networks (NGA), are instead able to provide Internet at a speed of at least 30 Mbps.
NGAs already connect over half of EU households, which is still far behind the official target of having all citizens covered by high-speed Internet of at least 30 Mbps by 2020.