On the 29 May, after six months of negotiation, the EU has reached political agreement on the scope of the WiFi4EU initiative and the funding it is to receive.
The initiative is an important step in the fulfilment of the Commission’s wider Digital Single Market Strategy. The purpose of WiFi4EU is to bring high quality WiFi connectivity to public spaces across the EU, aiming to provide “every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020.”
The EU has committed to designate €120 million for the initiative. This shall be used to roll-out the equipment and services needed to provide high quality WiFi hotspots in 6,000 to 8,000 municipalities across the EU.
Any local public authority, or other entities with a ‘public mission’, such as libraries or health centres, may apply for funding under WiFi4EU. If accepted, the funds will be provided in the form of vouchers, covering up to the full cost of the equipment and its installation. The public entities will remain responsible for the cost of connectivity and maintenance of equipment for at least three years, under the current proposals.
In the initial stages, a number of concerns regarding the scheme were raised, for example over the impact that the scheme would have on private competition for such services. The current agreement appears to quell this concern, with the EU committing to only support requests for funding in areas where no similar public or private offer is in place. Additionally, the agreement purports to ensure fairness across the member states, with the funds to be deployed in a geographically balanced manner, on a first come, first served basis. A maximum of one voucher will be available per community.
The WiFi4EU announcement will be warmly received by the public and public authorities alike, in particular those in ‘hard to reach’ areas where private players are unlikely to have rolled-out a public WiFi offering. The public will additionally be pleased to learn that the current agreement prevents funded public entities from imposing direct or indirect payment mechanisms in return for the connectivity. They may not, for example, make the viewing of commercial advertising or the provision of personal data for commercial purposes a condition for connecting to the service – a contrast to the typical ‘free’ WiFi services currently on offer.
Now political agreement has been reached, the detail as to where the funds will come from and the process for application for these funds must be hammered out. Once this has been settled, the intention is for a pilot of the initiative to launch later this year, with an initial pot of €20,000 to cover up to 1,000 schemes. Pending any issues with this roll-out, the initiative will be fully launched in 2018.
The initiative may present a considerable opportunity for private players in the market to team up with the local authorities to provide the equipment and the connectivity necessary to make WiFi4EU a reality. Such providers should therefore watch this space for the official launch in the coming months.
Of course, for the UK agreement on the initiative is something of a bittersweet moment: with Brexit looming the UK’s full participation in the initiative is not guaranteed. However, up the point of departure, local authorities and other eligible parties should not be prevented from applying for WiFi4EU Funding, and it may indeed be of considerable benefit for them to do so.