EC Warns Countries Not to Go It Alone in Broadband Upgrades

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A week after the U.K. unveiled plans to establish a super-fast broadband infrastructure across the country within the next three years, Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for telecommunications, Thursday warned E.U. member states, including the U.K., not to go it alone.Coordinating policy on the roll-out of next generation broadband networks with other European countries is necessary if the ambitious goals of the countries, and the E.U., are to be achieved, Reding said in a speech at a conference in Brussels."To make the most of the E.U. single market, and to prevent the various national initiatives from getting out of rhythm and resulting in disharmony, guidance is needed at European level," she said, adding: "Europe cannot afford to get its ICT and telecom policies wrong; too much is at stake."Faster broadband connection speeds allow content such as music and video to be uploaded and downloaded to and from the Internet faster. They will also spur software innovations that will result in a greater choice of online applications for users.Politicians also see faster broadband as a vital tool for creating jobs and kick-starting their economies.Unilateral efforts from countries including the U.K. illustrate the frustration these countries feel about the lack of progress in updating E.U. telecom laws.The European Parliament has effectively vetoed a package of measures that included laws designed to help upgrade Europe's telecom infrastructure.Members of the European Parliament agreed to add a clause forcing governments to seek formal judicial approval before banning anyone suspected of illegally sharing copyright-protected material online.The French and British governments are trying to set up systems that would allow government agencies to ban individuals from the Internet without having to go to court.The national governments refused to accept the Parliament's now infamous amendment 138. As a result the whole package of laws cannot proceed along the law-making process. Reding said Thursday "we need to seal the deal on the new regulatory package so that we can move on to the other pressing regulatory issues that we face."Ed Richards, the chief executive of Ofcom, the U.K. telecom regulator, who was also attending the conference, agreed. "We cannot let it [amendment 138] hold everything else up. Nor can we afford to now re-open the substantive points of the proposed Framework," he said."At a time when governments across Europe are seeking to promote large-scale investment in next generation networks, and competition at the deepest possible layers, a failure to adopt the package before the end of the year would be a significant blow," said Richards.In addition to the telecom package, the Commission has also proposed recommendations aimed specifically at the creation of next-generation broadband networks across the E.U. One is designed to help national governments to step in and assist companies with state aid, while respecting the state aid rules. The other tries to balance two seemingly opposed interests: encouraging investors to spend billions on the new infrastructure on the one hand, and ensuring cheap access to the new networks for rival telecoms firms in order to spur competition.The draft recommendation published earlier this month was criticized by both sides in the debate: incumbents, usually former state owned telecom monopolies, argue that to recoup their investment in the infrastructure they should be allowed to charge higher prices to rivals that use their networks.But the rival firms argue that this would stifle competition and that it amounts to a regulatory holiday for the incumbents.Historically, Reding has been more supportive of the rivals' argument than the one posed by the incumbents. Nevertheless, she said Thursday that she supports the idea of allowing incumbents a light regulatory touch when they team up with other firms to invest in new broadband infrastructure, as long as the infrastructure uses fiber-optic cables."I strongly believe that this support by regulators should not apply in a mere VDSL context," she said. VDSL is a faster version of DSL (digital subscriber line) connections common today, but is slower than fiber-optic cables.The aims of the British initiative, dubbed Digital Britain, include having all U.K. homes connected with broadband of at least 2M bps (bits per second) by 2012.

France's plan, known as France Numerique 2012, is less ambitious: It aims to have all houses connected at a speed of at least 512K bps in the same timeframe.

Germany's Breitbandstrategie is the most ambitious plan in terms of speed but at the cost of people living in remote areas. It wants three quarters of the German population to have access to connection speeds of 50M bps by 2014.

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