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EU agrees to fund free community Wi-Fi hotspots

An EU initiative will support the installation of free public Wi-Fi hotspots in local communities.31 May 2017

The European Parliament, Council of Ministers and Commission have reached agreement on the WiFi4EU initiative. Funding worth €120 million will be put towards the equipment needed to provide free public access to Wi-Fi in 6,000 o 8,000 municipalities, the Commission said.  

Local public authorities will be able to apply for funding to provide Wi-Fi in areas where a similar private or public offer does not exist. Successful authorities will be given vouchers that can be used to purchase and install equipment, while the public authority will be expected to cover the running costs of the connection itself, the Commission said.

Andrus Ansip, vice-president in charge of the digital single market said: "The digital single market strategy aims to build a fully connected Europe where everyone has access to high-quality digital networks. The WiFi4EU initiative will improve connectivity in particular where access to the internet is limited. WiFi4EU is a welcome first step, but much more needs to be done to achieve high-speed connectivity across the whole EU territory – such as improving Europe-wide coordination of spectrum and stimulating investments in the high-capacity networks that Europe needs."

Munich-based telecommunications expert Igor Barabash of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: "It will be interesting to see how the funds will be distributed between the towns or institutions applying for the money. If the Commission wants to enable more people to use public Wi-Fi it would make more sense to provide the funds to larger cities. However, large cities tend to already have implemented free Wi-Fi, at least to some extent, or might have a fast 4G / LTE network with high capabilities."

"Also, in Germany the scarce availability of free public Wi-Fi is not based on the lack of funding. The lack of a seamless connection to public Wi-Fi is more of an issue, because users have to register and log in. That creates a worse user experience than using the well-developed 4G / LTE network. The lack of a proper regulatory framework is an even more important problem, because of the liability risks it raises for the Wi-Fi provider," Barabash said.

The Commission announced three strategic connectivity objectives in September 2016. By 2025, all 'main socio-economic drivers' such as schools, universities, research centres, transport hubs, providers of public services such as hospitals and administrations, and enterprises relying on digital technologies, should have access to extremely high - gigabit – connectivity. All European households should have access to connectivity offering a download speed of at least 100 Mbps, which can be upgraded to Gbps, and all urban areas as well as major roads and railways should have uninterrupted 5G coverage.

As an interim target, 5G should be commercially available in at least one major city in each EU country by 2020, the commission said.