In rural areas across the EU, over 4 homes in 5 do not have fast internet connection. We need new, fresh ideas and open discussions to push investments.

This is a digital age. People want to shop, skype, download music and videos instantly and not have to wait because of a slow internet connection.  Fast broadband is crucial for our future prosperity, essential for our economic and employment prospects.

Yet, many Europeans do not have broadband at all. In rural areas across the EU, over 4 homes in 5 do not have fast coverage. Many millions are unable to enjoy the latest digital innovations. It is part of my job to worry about the interests of those Europeans.

Our goal in the European Commission is to have, by 2020, every citizen with fast broadband coverage, above 30 Megabits per second. That is no straightforward task, needing investment of tens of billions of euros.

On the other hand, Europeans need to enjoy competition and choice: meaning a better deal for the consumer, and stimulating providers to offer continually better services.

As in any policy area, the Digital Agenda challenge is to find the right balance; including between those with broadband, and those still waiting for it to come to their door.

The rules which apply to broadband contracts are a case in point. On the one hand, EU rules protect consumers, so they don't get "locked in" with one supplier. On the other, those needing to invest to provide more broadband need a degree of predictability about revenues, and incentives to do so.

The European Parliament and Council of Ministers are currently discussing how to strike that balance. The Commission's proposal that would offer consistent protections across the EU, including the right for broadband consumers to end their contracts after a few months. At the same time, the proposal has other important provisions to promote investment, and I am working to make sure it will soon become law.

But this is just one piece of the puzzle.  Of course there is also public money. Hopefully part of the €300 billion package currently being assembled by my Commission colleague Jyrki Katainen will go into broadband; there is European Investment Bank (EIB) financing in areas where market financing needs a helping hand; and there is EU structural funding worth over €5 billion.

But much more is needed to connect every village in Europe. We need new, fresh ideas and open discussions without "taboos". Hence, my idea to incentivise investment in rural areas by allowing telcos to reap the benefit of their investments. It is similar to what we are already doing in the energy sector: in some limited cases, for new pipelines, companies can be exempted from the requirement to provide competitors with access to pipelines. This is only given if they can convince the EU Commission that without that exemption the investment would not have been made.

Of course broadband is not energy; and different tools are appropriate for different situations – the needs of a dense city with rich competition may be different to those of an unserved rural area. In the first case, consumer choice is the issue; in the second it is having broadband at all. In a village – wouldn't it be better to have the option of broadband with a longer contract, than not to have broadband at all?

It should not be a "taboo" to ask such questions and start a public discussion on them. We have to find the right balance between investment predictability and consumer choice. Finding that balance to get every European digital, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, will be a major challenge of my mandate.

If you want to discuss more in detail, follow me on Twitter: @GOettingerEU

 

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