Even though she isn't the youngest European politician around, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes is no stranger to the Internet. She says Europe must catch up - by scrapping roaming charges, and expanding broadband coverage.
Neelie Kroes gets annoyed every time she uses her smartphone to access the Internet in Brussels. Both professionally and privately, the 72-year-old politician is an inveterate Internet surfer. But in Belgium - unlike in Nigeria - she has no access to the ultra-fast 4G cellphone network. "Brussels has no 4G. But Lagos, by the way, has 4G," she said at an event in the Belgian capital. "If you live and work here, you know what that means."
The determined Dutch former government minister - now EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda - has decided that all this must change. Europe is a digital desert, she says, not only for fast mobile phone networks, but also for cable Internet access. Only a quarter of Europeans have access to 4G, she said, while there are twice as many people in the US with access to it. In fact, the number of people in Europe who actually use it is much lower, because of the relatively high costs. Meanwhile, Japan is already establishing the even quicker 5G.
'Europe cannot compete'
"We're limping behind the US, Asia, and parts of Africa, and we can't compete," groans Kroes. She wants all that to change by 2020 - the target, determined by the EU governments, when every user is to have ultra-fast broadband. Kroes is working on the implementation. "That's my vision, my car sticker slogan, so to speak: every household, every company, every public institution, and every classroom will be on the Internet," she says. "Europe needs connectivity to be competitive in the digital age, and we know that."
The fact that economic development increasingly happens online means that a good network connection is an opportunity for businesspeople. "We can't deprive our citizens of this opportunity," she added. "We must not allow any digital division of our continent. We must not create a society where we can distinguish between the digitally rich and the digitally deprived."
The Commission has at least met one target. According to the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), by the end of 2013, every European will have the opportunity to receive broadband Internet via satellite. "That will guarantee that nearly 100 percent of people will have potential access to the Internet," said Kroes on Thursday (17.10.2013). Satellite Internet, she said, was particularly important for countries like Poland and Slovenia, where cable networks have not yet reached certain rural areas.
No more Internet borders
Countries like Luxembourg and Malta can already boast 100-percent Internet access, while Germany reaches around 97 percent. But that is only true of standard Internet access - only half of Europeans have access to really fast broadband, via cable or cellphone networks. In order to give telecom companies incentives to invest and create new tariffs, Kroes intends to liberalize the market and pull down national borders for the Internet.
"Telecom companies that are allowed to operate in one EU country, should be allowed to operate in all 28 member states," she said. "We have to ensure that we have healthy, competitive telecom companies. That's why I want to create a domestic European market for telecommunications. It is strange, to put it nicely, that all kinds of industries have been brought together in a domestic market, and telecommunications hasn't."
Net neutrality and new business models
Social Democrat MEP Petra Kammerevert sees just one catch. Kroes' proposals could threaten net neutrality. Up until now, every user in Europe can use every possible Internet service and website, regardless of how much data has to be transported. But soon, the telecom companies could stagger their offers and make fast access to certain services more expensive.
That could lead to some pages, such as Skype, being blocked altogether because they disrupt the firm's business model. "I think that is the first step to a two-tier Internet," warned Kammerevert. "That is not what I would define as freedom of communication."
Kroes emphasizes that while she is very much in favor of net neutrality, she says that companies must be able to profit for providing a better service. At the same time, she wants to completely abolish roaming charges for telephone calls and Internet use, making possible a continent-wide flat-rate service.
Industry lobbyists in Brussels have already warned that this could raise flat-rate prices, but Kroes believes that the telecom companies won't make good on this threat because they will be able to make more money by staggering Internet service prices.
Kammerevert thinks the commissioner will end up striking a deal with the industry. "For me it sounds like this: we'll take away your roaming charge privileges. In return, you get a qualitative staggering of Internet access - a high performance network that is correspondingly expensive. It leaves the impression of a package deal."
The EU Commission has long been offering the companies financial incentives to invest in network infrastructure, fiberoptic cables, and 4G networks. Around one billion euros ($1.37 billion) of EU structural funds is expected to be made available for this every year until 2020. Not only that, the Internet is expected to be on the agenda again at next week's summit of EU leaders.