Securing basic access to high-speed broadband must be recognised as a universal service, argues the European Committee of the Regions, and universal service obligations should get full recognition. "This is particularly relevant for areas where the market does not deliver and where public investment is crucial", said rapporteur Mart Võrklaev (EE/ALDE), Mayor of Rae Municipality in Estonia.
The opinion , which was adopted unanimously in the plenary session on 8 February, suggests setting aside funds for developing access networks in rural areas, in addition to the funds earmarked for developing a basic network. Financial assistance should seek to attain a geographically balanced distribution to the EU’s economic, social and territorial cohesion by taking particular account of the needs of local communities. Meanwhile, having indicators to compare the connectivity prices could provide useful insights into competition and efficiency levels in communication markets.
Particularly important is that the development of the 5G network takes place at the same time and at the same speed throughout the EU, because it will be the most critical building block of the digital society in the next decade, serving a wide range of applications –for instance remote surgery, smart factories and robotics - and sectors such as eHealth or energy management, to name but a few. "The EU-wide introduction of these kind of products and services depends on the whole EU enjoying full wireless high-speed internet coverage", recalls rapporteur Võrklaev.
The opinion also welcomes the quick deployment of the WiFi4EU initiative, which aims to equip every European town with high-quality WiFi connection free of charge. However, this scheme should remain limited to new, complimentary access points and not compete with existing private schemes. The European Commission should also provide assistance to local authorities, especially smaller towns in rural areas, so that they are able to develop modern, fast, safe and user-friendly networks.
MEP Carlos Zorrinho (PT/S&D), rapporteur of the European Parliament report on the WiFi4EU initiative, highlighted the need for partnerships with local and regional authorities. "In a moment when we need to connect citizens with the European project and show the positive impact of the Digital Single Market in their daily lives, WiFi4EU is an initiative which brings tangible benefits to everyone and contributes to the creation of technologically inclusive and participative cities", he said at the plenary session.
The European Commission is setting up – in cooperation with the European Committee of the Regions – a participatory broadband platform to ensure that public and private bodies cooperate and firmly commit to investing in the development of the broadband network. The first meeting of the platform, which consists of CoR members and Commission representatives, will be held later this spring. "The Broadband Platform should contribute to a faster, better and more sustainable deployment of high-speed broadband in rural and sparsely populated areas in the EU and thus support their economy via digital services", Mr Võrklaev said.
Completing the Digital Single Market is one of the priorities of the Estonian presidency of the Council in the second semester of 2017. These topics will be discussed on Friday in a meeting between Markku Markkula, the President of the European Committee of the Regions, and the Prime Minister of Estonia Jüri Ratas.
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