What could be the definition of the European universal broadband Internet service?

 thinkbroadband :: European USO could interrupt government plans

My comments and summary

The European Commission are looking in to the idea of a standard for baseline broadband Internet service across the European Union. This is based on certain factors where the UK’s fixed broadband coverage is 99% whereas the average across the European Union is 93% with the EU’s rural areas clocking in at 77%. In my opinion, these figures don’t quote a minimum service speed “at the door” for any of the ADSL services.

The issues they were raising include:

  • competitive service provision to European-Union standards, especially in rural areas
  • access to the Internet service by disadvantaged groups such as disabled people, people on low means and people who are in remote areas
  • Minimum service speed
  • How should the universal service be funded
  • Should the standard be determined by the European-Union nations themselves or by the European Commission in Brussels

Competitive Service Provision

I had used the DegroupNews website to observe how ADSL Internet service was being provided through France, and that there were many service providers in the population-dense areas whereas the population-sparse areas were serviced by one operator. A very good example of this was the département of Alpes-Maritimes (16) which has the cities of Nice and Cannes. Here, all the exchanges covering areas near the seaboard had many operators, with those big resort cities had many operators whereas the towns in the Alps had just one operator.

If you don’t have the same level of competitive service in a geographic area as you do in another geographic area, there is an increased likelihood of the dominant operator providing poor service quality or taking time to roll out service and technology improvements to that area.

Disadvantaged groups

A common issue that may be raised would be provision of broadband service to disadvantaged groups like the disabled, people on low incomes and people who live in remote areas. The cost of providing computer-usage-aids to disabled people is reducing because of various imperatives like the ageing population, civil-rights measures that include disability access, increased use of standard hardware / software interfaces and easy-to-implement software modifications. This group of users, along with the elderly, may also benefit from having broadband service included in to communications-access welfare measures like telephony-service benefits that are part of pensions and benefits.

This heading also includes economically-disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed or those on low income. It should also include provisions to prohibit service providers from “redlining” service out of economically-disadvantaged areas in a similar pattern to what happened in major cities in the USA through the 40s to the 60s. As well, there may be issues raised about minimum bandwidth to be made available for “social” or “low-cost” private services as well as the provision of public-access facilities in the form of “cybercafé-style” terminals and/or Wi-Fi hotspots; and cost-effective broadband service for community organisations.

It also includes providing broadband Internet service to remote communities, whether through a wireless technology like WiMAX; extending wired technology to these communities or a mixture of both methods. This will also encompass the issue of providing any extra consumer-premises hardware that is needed to receive broadband under these conditions. 

The standard network speed

An issue that is also being raised is what should be the defined headline speed for the universal service. Some countries may run on either 512kbps or 1Mbps for the standard speed but the UK is preferring to call 2Mbps as the standard for universal broadband service. As well, the European Commission are showing a preference for a 2Mbps service as the baseline standard.

Funding of the universal broadband service

The question of funding the costs of meeting universal broadband service targets is a similar one to how the cost of providing universal telephone service was met. Here, there isn’t an established broadband Internet service provider in the same way that there was an established telephone service provider. This is although in most European countries, the established telephone service provider such as the “PTTs” or the telephone spinoffs such as British Telecom or France Télécom ran a basic online service in the form of a “viewdata” service and had established their own retail ISP services.

One method that may be considered easy would be for the established ISP to bear the costs themselves and end up charging steep prices for discretionary services like what has happened with the established telephone services. On the other hand, there could be a universal-service fund similar to what is established in the USA for the provision of the universal telephone service. This could be funded by all Internet providers through a levy charged to all customers’ services which the UK was proposing or a turnover-based tax, or simply the national government or European Commission to offset this through line-item spending.

A similar argument that may be raised is whether the nations should fund the universal service themselves or rely on the powers-that-be in Brussels to manage the funding.

Should the standard be determined at national level or European-Union level

This issue is being raised because some countries in the European Union, most notably the UK, France and Germany have made headlong progress in achieving the goal of the universal broadband Internet service. Some countries, such as the UK, have also achieved highly-ambitious standards like 2Mbps as the baseline speed.

The national vs European-level determination may affect whether countries are able to compete more easily in the European single market and whether an advanced country should be “pegged down” by lower baseline standards that may be determined to accommodate countries with not-so-advanced Internet infrastructure or expectations.

Conclusion

Other countries and country groups that are outside the remit of the European Union should observe what is being decided in Brussels for the universal broadband Internet service so they can know what is expected for such a basic level of service and what factors should be looked at when determining this expectation.

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