The EU plans to revise rules governing access to the Internet and telephones throughout the bloc. Yesterday (2 March) the European Commission launched a consultation asking whether money for wider broadband coverage should come from the public purse or from industry coffers.
In the consultation, the Commission will be asking whether Internet access should be a public right and how the EU's current rules, dating from 2002, can be tweaked to include the bloc's goal of providing 'broadband for all'.
This ties in with the Spanish EU Presidency's goal of making high-speed Internet compulsory across the bloc, aimed at improving Web access in rural areas (EURACTIV 18/12/09).
Who will foot the bill?
The most significant issue in the debate on network coverage so far has been where the money for building high-speed Internet infrastructures will come from.
The consultation will ask both industry and the public sector how they foresee EU rules to fulfill the bloc's 'broadband for all' goal.
In an earlier study on the EU's so-called 'digital divide' – which separates Internet 'haves' and 'have-nots' – the Commission estimated that 23% of the EU's rural areas are without access to the Web and only 70% of the rural population could rely on existing infrastructure to access the Net via a high-speed connection.
Industry sources from incumbent network operators say universal service rules are not the right tool for wider broadband coverage when structural funds already in place could provide the capital for high-speed Internet across the EU.
The current universal service rules guarantee that EU citizens can connect to the public network and use public phone services to make phone calls, send faxes or access the Web.
They also ensure that directory enquiry services, public payphones and special help for the disabled are available.
There is some appetite among the EU's municipal authorities to co-ordinate further roll-out of high speed Internet access, according to a working group organised by EUROCITIES, a network of major European cities.
Over half of the 20-member group, including the mayors of Stockholm, Amsterdam and Vienna, have said they would be willing to co-ordinate better access rules but this did not include subsidising network coverage.