States seek softer access to EU wifi fund
By Peter Teffer
The recipients of a new wifi investment fund should be more evenly distributed across Europe, according to an emerging view amid EU telecommunication ministers, meeting in Brussels on Friday (2 December).
It will be the first time the fund will be discussed at ministerial level since the European Commission announced it in September.
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Ministers are expected to agree on a common position on all details of the proposal except for the amount of money that will be made available.
The commission has proposed €120 million. It is to be distributed among “local authorities and providers of public services” and to be used to set up hotspots that provide free wifi connection.
According to a preparatory paper by the Slovak presidency of the Council, where the ministers will meet, member states had expressed “surprise” over the proposal, which was not part of the commission's work programme.
The paper also noted that national delegations identified a “lack of an impact assessment” and “the lack of clarity on the source of the funds, on the entities eligible, on the procedures to be followed at European or national level, and on the resources required to maintain the access points over time”.
Member states are concerned about the commission's proposal to fund projects on a “first come, first serve” basis.
They noted it is unclear how that principle “would be compatible with the needed geographical balance across member states”.
They also want to specify that projects that are capable of delivering broadband access services at speeds of at least 30 Megabit per second (Mbps), should be eligible.
The original proposal had not given a minimum speed, but said instead the projects should provide “very high-speed broadband connectivity”, which could have been interpreted as more than 30 Mbps.
The average speed in the European country with the fastest internet connection, Sweden, is 19.1 Mbps.
The European Parliament will also have to agree to the proposal.
Centre-left Portuguese MEP Carlos Zorrinho has been appointed to steer the file through the committee, and lead any negotiations with the member states.
He told EUobserver the plan, dubbed Wifi4EU, has “great potential”.
“It endows the Telecoms package with a cohesive and social dimension allowing for an inclusive and universal access to the internet by making it an explicit priority of the Digital Union and an important criteria in the design of the Digital Single Market,” said Zorrinho via e-mail.
Left-wing MEP Michel Reimon was less impressed.
“The WiFi4EU proposal seems to be more like a PR Stunt than a real attempt to close the digital gap in Europe,” the Austrian MEP told this website, noting the plan lacks “maturity”.
“Once you set-up a wifi spot in a small village, who will take care of it and manage it? Small villages and communities won't have the money as well as maybe the skills to maintain it properly.”
Reimon, who will follow the file for the Greens group, also expressed his concern about how users of the public wifi spots would be protected against privacy and security hazards.
The Committee of Regions, which was invited to give advice, added in a draft report “that user data should not be requested as this is unpleasant for users and can lead to the unfounded fear that their details will be used for advertising and other undesirable purposes”.
Member states are leaving the door open for projects that fund a wifi hotspot which is only accessible in exchange for your personal data.
The original commission proposal said wireless connectivity should only be considered free if nothing is asked in return, including personal data.
Member states want the criteria to say that only personal data asked “for commercial purposes” should not be allowed.
MEPs Zorrinho and Reimon did agree on one thing.
When the wifi fund was announced, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made a bold promise.
He said the commission wanted to “equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020”.
Zorrinho said that while that was “a very inspiring promise”, the wifi fund “nor the financial amount allocated for it will be sufficient to materialise it”.
“Unless the European Commission will propose additional legislative acts and find additional sources of financing, Mr. Junkers statement is hardly a realistic promise,” said Reimon.
MEPs following the file for other political groups did not respond to questions from this website.