EU will offer free Wi-Fi in villages and towns

Up to 8,000 communities stand to benefit from new free wireless internet to be installed in public spaces

EU will offer free Wi-Fi throughout villages and towns
Credit: Flickr/IDOL

If you’re in the Wi-Fi network installation business in Europe, you might be about to get extremely busy. The head of the politico-economic union said its member states will be investing dramatically in Wi-Fi connectivity. The reason: to “empower” its subjects.

“Every European village and every city” will be equipped with a total of an equivalent of 134 million dollars-worth of non-payment, free wireless Internet by 2020.” The installs will occur around the “main centers of public life,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union’s executive body, said in a state of the union address a few days ago.

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The term “centers of public life” is open to interpretation, but a fact sheet associated with the plan suggests public administrations, hospitals, libraries and “other bodies with a public mission” will benefit.

“Free Wi-Fi would then be available in parks, squares, libraries [and] public buildings to benefit citizens and institutions with a public mission,” Juncker said.

Places of worship are not mentioned, although they are obviously centers of public life. Possibly too controversial—which ones qualify? Not sure I’d like to be the official making that decision.

Juncker’s plan—Wifi4EU—with the not very large budget, calls for the EU to pay for hardware and equipment installation, and the public bodies to pay the internet service providers’ subscription fees every month, as well as the cost to keep the equipment working.

A system of vouchers issued by the EU will be used to handle the public bodies’ capital costs.

At least 6,000 to 8,000 communities will be served and 40 million to 50 million connections will be made daily by the time the roll-out is complete in 2020, according to the fact sheet.

Expanding free Wi-Fi locations

Many libraries and public spaces already have free Wi-Fi. Paris, for example has 296 parks, museums and the like already covered. But this plan expands that penetration.

One criteria for getting the money is that the municipality is “not competing with a similar, existing private or public Wi-Fi offer.” That remit leads, conceivably, to some fascinating possible locations, such as town squares; near, if not in, public toilets (common in parts of Europe); and municipal camping sites—some countries’ towns, such as France’s, provide for camping.

It also poses the question as to what the mobile network operators (MNOs) are going to think about this possible cannibalization of their hard-fought, expensively provisioned business.

The “internet is a public good to which everybody should have access,” EU says in its fact sheet. That’s despite having encouraged the sale of spectrum to MNOs.

By “everybody” it means it, and bureaucrats responsible for spending, too. It’s not just the populous who will benefit: government agencies, social healthcare and tourism offices could see reduced costs as citizens and tourists migrate to “e-government, e-health or e-tourism.”

Interestingly, although the tagline for the internet connectivity uses the term Wi-Fi, as in “Wifi4EU,” Juncker talked about 5G expansion plans in almost the same breath. He also, notably, does not use the term Wi-Fi, but “wireless internet access” and “connectivity.” Read into that what you will.

Public free Wi-Fi has been hard to find in some places in Europe, such as Germany. No-password, public Wi-Fi operators there have been embroiled in controversy as to whether they are liable for the actions of their patrons.

For example, Sony Music Entertainment sued a German store owner for supposedly allowing a customer to Torrent a song on his network. Sony said the store owner should have secured his network. The case ended up at the European Court of Justice earlier this year, which advised in favor of the store owner.

That position was formally upheld this month, ISP Preview reports, coincidentally—or not—within days of the EU’s Wifi4EU announcement.

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