EU broadband behind target – particularly in rural areas

Broadband coverage remains a major concern for the European Union particularly in rural areas, in spite of progress to date, according to a new report on the matter from Brussels.

While in general, broadband coverage has been improving across the EU, not all targets set for 2020 will be met, according to a report from the European Court of Auditors.

The EU’s goal of ensuring that half of European households have ultra-fast broadband connections by 2020 is significantly behind target, the auditors have noted.

Rural areas in particular remain less well-connected than cities.

While nearly all member states achieved the target for basic broadband coverage, this will most likely not be the case for the 2020 targets for fast (over 30 megabits per second – Mbps) and ultra-fast (over 100 Mbps) broadband.

Rural areas remain problematic in most member states; 14 out of all 28 member states had less than 50% fast broadband coverage in rural areas.

Moreover, only 15% of all households had subscribed to ultra-fast broadband by mid-2017, the report details.

Iliana Ivanova, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report, commented on the findings, noting: “For Europe to remain competitive in the global economy, and for the benefit of citizens and government, good levels of internet speed and access provided by broadband are essential.

It is important that the EU sets itself challenging and realistic targets for broadband in the future – and meets them.

“We make recommendations in the areas of strategic planning, the regulatory environment and fostering competition.”

The auditors visited five member states – Ireland, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Italy – as well as consulting national regulatory authorities, business and telecommunications associations, consumer associations and trade unions.

Findings and recommendations

The following are some of the most important issues raised by the report:

Broadband strategies

Broadband strategies are key. All the member states visited had prepared such strategies; but, some were finalised late and targets were not always consistent with those set at EU level.

Competition

Competition between providers is important for developing broadband infrastructure; but, not all the member states visited had put in place an appropriate legal and regulatory environment.

Some areas, however, particularly away from cities, are not attractive to the private sector; without public support, there is a risk that these areas will continue to fall behind in terms of broadband access.

Financing

Financing needs for broadband infrastructure in rural and suburban areas were not always properly addressed and European Investment Bank support did not focus on areas of greatest need.

According to the European Commission, up to €250 billion will be required to achieve the Europe 2020 targets for broadband across all member states.

About half of this amount may be needed for rural areas.

Despite these problems, three of the five nations visited – Hungary, Ireland and Italy – may be in a good position to achieve the European Commission’s objectives for 2025 – if they implement plans as intended, the auditors have said.

That would include all households with access to ultra-fast broadband, up-gradable to one gigabit per second.

The auditors make a number of recommendations, including:
  • Member states should develop new plans for the period after 2020;
  • The European Commission should clarify the application of State Aid guidelines and support member states’ efforts to foster more competition in broadband;
  • The European Investment Bank should focus its support on small and medium-size projects in areas where public sector support is most needed.

Irish broadband

Closer to home, deputy Mattie McGrath last Thursday (May 31) questioned Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten on poor broadband and mobile phone coverage.

In response to this, Minister Naughten said: “I included in the programme for Government a commitment to a mobile phone and broadband task force, which works with the Minister of State, deputy Kyne, and stakeholders to alleviate some of the mobile coverage and broadband deficits.

The following initiatives are evidence of the effectiveness of the task force in bringing forward proposals that will enhance mobile phone service quality, particularly in rural areas such as Co. Tipperary.

“They include the appointment of a broadband officer in every county to act as a single point of contact in local authorities for their communities, the removal of development contributions for telecommunications infrastructure and the revision of exempted development regulations by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for the roll-out of 4G and 5G broadband services.”