This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.
Neelie Kroes, the European Union's Digital Agenda commissioner, proposed a number of measures yesterday (20 September) aimed at boosting high-speed Internet across Europe. But her plan faces opposition from some member states and key industry groups.
The European Commission presented three long-awaited policy initiatives on broadband, with the intention of guiding future developments in the sector.
One of the initiatives, the Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP), is a five-year plan aimed at harmonising the use of frequencies across Europe, which proposes opening up a specific frequency for wireless broadband operators.
The sought-after frequency is the valued 800 MHz band currently used by broadcasters, which is being freed up by the switch to digital TV.
The Commission's communication sets a deadline of 1 January 2013 for the switch to take place, "with possible derogations until 2015 in exceptional cases".
In practice, however, the Commission's ultimatum can do little to change frequency allocation plans. Harmonisation is a taboo word when it comes to radio frequencies and the approval of member states is still essential to push through binding measures on the matter.
Germany is the only EU country so far to make the broadcast spectrum available for mobile broadband. Airwaves auction were held in May, with Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone acquiring many of the new radio frequencies.
But in other countries, the entrenched interests of national politicians and public broadcasters represent a powerful opposition lobby against the use of spectrum for purposes other than broadcasting.
In Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi built his political fortunes on the basis of his television empire, it is unlikely that broadband operators will stand a real chance of competing. Indeed, all bidders for the freed frequencies in Italy are at present exclusively broadcasters, not Internet service providers.
Investment in infrastructure
The other facet of Kroes's proposals comprises a long-awaited recommendation on access to Next Generation Networks (NGNs) and a communication on broadband infrastructure investment.
As its name indicates, the recommendation is not legally binding. Member states are invited to follow the Commission's advice, but there is little chance of forcing a recalcitrant national regulator to implement it.
Asked twice about the Commission's authority to enforce the proposals, Kroes did not give a clear answer during a press conference yesterday (20 September).
Moreover, opposition to the plans already looks strong. As reported by EURACTIV (EURACTIV 10/09/10), incumbent operators that have invested in new fibre-based networks warn that the proposal would give competitors easy access to their infrastructure. This would stifle investment in the sector, according to ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association.
New operators, represented by the European Competitive Telecommunication Association (ECTA), sent the opposite warning. While applauding the Commission's recommendation – which is slightly more to their advantage than previous drafts – they said accessing networks may end up being too costly if European regulators are unable to impose the right price. However, this ability will remain within the competence of national authorities, ECTA stressed.
The third initiative presented by Kroes relates to investments in new high-speed Internet infrastructure, with the European Investment Bank (EIB) set to table innovative financial instruments to back the initiative. Public-private partnerships are also encouraged.
However, with little money available at a time of economic crisis, the plan faces significant implementation hurdles.