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Free Wi-Fi for All?

The European Commission Makes an Ambitious Proposal

By Dennis Jones

Will there be free Wi-Fi in the EU?

It’s not that often that the annual State of the European Union speech makes major technology headlines, but this time it did. European Commission President, Jean-Claude Junker, made a bold proposal, offering free Wi-Fi for all in the EU – that’s free Wi-Fi for more than 500 million people.

The aptly titled WIFI4EU, Wi-Fi for Europeans, project will attempt to put open Wi-Fi hotspots, available to all EU citizens, in public spaces across the 28 (eventually 27) member states of the Union, in parks, libraries and other public buildings.

With WIFI4EU, the Commission is again reinforcing its Digital Single Market agenda, which attempts to bring down digital barriers and unlock online opportunities for innovation. The proposal also comes at a time when the European Commission is reasserting the fundamental rights of all EU citizens to be connected to the internet.

Junker touched on both points during his speech: “We propose today to equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020… Digital technologies and digital communications are permeating every aspect of life. All they require is access to high-speed internet. We need to be connected. Our economy needs it. People need it.”

But as always in politics, the devil is in the details, which tell a more sobering story. The European Commission is only committing €120 million – that’s 135 million in U.S. Dollars – through 2019 to subsidize the purchase, installation and upkeep of hotspots in 6,000 communities.

Although these hotspots will be open to all, they’ll be clustered in town centers, making them a hard sell for disconnected rural and suburban citizens.