The EU has announced Wifi4EU, the free access to Internet: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/wifi4eu-free-wi-fi-europeans
The WiFi4EU scheme will be open to entities with a public mission – typically local municipalities, libraries, health centres, etc. It will fund the equipment and installation costs (internet access points), while the local entity will pay for the connectivity (internet subscription) and maintenance in good order of the equipment.
The initial budget of the WiFi4EU scheme is EUR 120 million between 2017-2019. It will support the installation of state-of-the-art Wi-Fi equipment in the centres of community life.
The vision of the EU commission for digital inclusion and a digital society is highly appreciated. Though, it should be asked if the provision of free access to the Internet is the right answer to the societal challenges of digital inclusion. There are three areas of concern:
- (i) will free access to Internet achieve the goal of digital inclusion?
- (ii) Is is the role of the state or the EU commission to finance free access to amusement?
- (iii) is the envisaged business model sustainable?
There is little doubt that higher penetration of Internet access, especially in rural areas, is the key for sustainable development and supports:
- Local governments, as digital inclusion is vital for six key sectors: health, agriculture, education, retail, government and financial services.
- The people themselves to gain access to information related to education and healthcare, and finally more employment, income generation and productivity growth for everyone.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have identified “access to information and communication technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet” (SDG target 9.c). The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report on Digital Dividends (WDR 2016) reports on opportunities of digital technologies and digital access. Digital access is the key for digital development being the positive driver for sustainable and inclusive development. As such, free access to Internet will help in developing the society.
However, looking into the development of Internet usage both in mobile and fixed/wireless networks, we see that more than 90% of the bandwidth being used is related to video and other streaming services. Thus, free access to the Internet will foremost end up with even more amusement, and not necessary with information uptake.
Furthermore, the examples of free Wifi have shown that you can never build up covering the increasing demand without a proper business model. Google provides free Wifi at the main railway station of New Delhi, with the result that the service quality is not satisfactory, as amusement services consume all the bandwidth.
In addition, free Wifi4EU has to be payed by someone. Should the the tax payer be the one supporting entertainment?
Or should it be the duty of an operator to provide good service quality through payed entertainment services?
Free Access to Information
Our suggestion is free Information for all. The core of information are text and pictures, which we call the InfoInternet. Providing free InfoInternet
- is net neutral, as information to all information on the Internet is provides;
- provides a business model where access to information is free, but access to entertainment costs;
- allows operators to provide entertainment services with a certain quality of services in mind, as an income model is associated with InfoInternet;
- allows municipalities to provided targeted information to the society, and cope with the demand;
- allows every citizen to provide free access to information through his Wifi, and can earn on providing entertainment;
- enhances the security of the network, as there is no need for sharing network passwords.
The Basic Internet Foundation has established InfoInternet pilots in various places, and has received funds for Connecting the Unconnected in Africa. Some of the findings: "10 min of video, or 10 months of information? The costs are equal", "1 users paying for video supports free access to information for 300-400 people", "Free access to information requires less than 2.5% of the network bandwidth".
Wifi4EU is a good opportunity to an EU wide focus on free access to information. Though the focus should be on free access to information, rather than free access to entertainment.
--Josef Noll, 26May2017 (Secretary General, Basic Internet Foundation, BasicInternet.org)