Free Wi-Fi in cities? ‘We panicked for five minutes. Then we realised it’s not serious’

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, during his State of the Union address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last year. [European Parliament]

Telecoms companies were as surprised as anyone when Jean-Claude Juncker announced Wednesday (14 September) that the European Commission wants every city and village in the EU to offer some free public Wi-Fi by 2020.

“We panicked for five minutes. Then we realised it’s not serious,” one industry source said.

Juncker mentioned the plan during his annual “State of the Union” speech early yesterday.

But the proposal that was published a few hours later doesn’t actually guarantee free wireless internet access.

The draft bill, which the Commission published on its website at the same time as a slew of other proposals to change telecoms and copyright laws, promises to put aside only €120 million in EU money to pay for public Wi-Fi in cities.

But that will cover only a tiny fraction of towns in the EU – far from “every European village and every city,” contrary to what Juncker said in his speech.

The €120 million fund will come from the Commission’s connecting Europe facility programme and pay for Wi-Fi in 6,000 to 8,000 cities and villages, according to the executive’s estimates.

Two industry lobbyists called the proposal a “good PR move”. One source suggested the announcement was planned as a feel-good offer to offset the bad press that the Commission received last week when it quietly published a limitation to the much-anticipated ban on mobile roaming charges—and then withdrew the proposal a few days later.

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Several Commission sources insisted that the free Wi-Fi proposal was not an attempt to stamp out memories of the roaming debacle.

But the executive only came up with the idea for the fund “rather recently,” the sources said.

Commission officials who worked on the proposal admitted that they do not have any data about how many cities in Europe already offer free public Wi-Fi. But one source said they assumed most bigger cities already have a decent amount of wireless internet hotspots in public places.

Funds from the €120 million pot will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis, and will not be prioritised to finance cities that currently have fewer Wi-Fi hotspots.

One Commission source said the money will provide fast internet connections—and will not be used to buy the kind of basic Wi-Fi routers that people use at home.

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Telecoms industry sources told that the plan will not make any big changes to how Europeans access the internet. But the move to fund public Wi-Fi makes political sense for the Commission and fits into the executive’s bid to boost internet speeds around the EU.

The sweeping changes to telecoms rules that the Commission proposed yesterday include a new internet speed target of at least 100 megabits per second for every household in the EU by 2025. The Commission even wants some places, like hospitals and schools, to have gigabit speed connections by that time.

The executive hopes that funding public Wi-Fi will help telecoms companies meet that goal: officials behind the plan think that if people get used to faster internet, telecoms companies will be motivated to build new, speedier networks to meet consumers’ demands.

One Commission source described the proposal as an “incentive to try to get them to deploy fibre” networks.

Fibre glass

The day-old telecoms proposals reflect the Commission’s now outspoken support for fibre glass telecoms networks, which has frustrated some operators. The executive wants companies to switch from older copper cables to fast fibre glass networks to meet growing demand for more internet bandwidth.

For now, that demand is driven to a large extent by video streaming. But the Commission is promoting connected cars as part of a broader move to have more devices connected to the internet and insists that connections still need to become faster to support that trend.

In some parts of the EU, there are other hurdles besides money that prevent city authorities from providing public Wi-Fi. Tight legal restrictions in Germany make anyone who provides wireless internet liable if a person illegally accesses copyrighted material on the network.

The European Court of Justice is expected to announce its decision today (15 September) in a case that could topple Germany’s comparatively tough Wi-Fi liability law.

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker surprised the telecoms industry by announcing a plan during his 2016 state of the union address to have free Wi-Fi in main areas of all European cities and villages by 2020. Telecoms lobbyists called the proposal a PR stunt--the actual bill promises a flimsy €120 million to fund Wi-Fi hotspots.

  • by 2020: Jean-Claude Juncker announced that he wants there to be some free public Wi-Fi in "every European village and every city".

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