EU asks who will pay for high-speed Internet

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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.

"Consumers and businesses are losing €25bn per year and broadband speeds are being restricted due to uncompetitive telecoms markets," according to a statement from the European Competitive Telecoms Association (ECTA).

"ECTA will be calling on the Commission and national regulators to investigate competitive failures in the telecoms sector and to examine the possibility of using new functional separation powers on dominant firms where necessary," commented Hubertus von Roenne, chairman of ECTA

"EU structural funds are already in place and we are not convinced that universal service rules are the right tool for wider network coverage," say sources from incumbent network operators.

A range of services are already covered by the EU's Universal Services Directive, with fixed-line telephones primary among these. 

If a service is considered universal, citizens have a right to be offered the opportunity to access it, meaning governments are obliged to make that service available to everyone. This obviously has financial consequences.

National regulators, however, retain the right to declare universal services unnecessary in areas which are already covered by existing offers.

The EU opened the way to defining high-speed Internet as a universal service by adopting the telecoms package in November 2009 (EURACTIV 05/11/09).

  • 30 March 2010: Commission hosts a public workshop on consultation.
  • 7 May 2010: Commission closes consultation on universal service rules.

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