Finland is already one of the world's most connected countries, with an estimated 96% of citizens enjoying Internet access, and the government has now taken the significant step of making broadband access mandatory.
The problem of bringing broadband to underserved regions is one the EU is in the process of tackling; a tricky task, if it is to continue to ensure that competition flourishes.
The EU has made it clear that it sees broadband as a fundamental right, but universal access policies are currently being threatened by anti-piracy legislation.
The Finnish government has passed legislation that will make broadband connectivity a fundamental right for every person in the country, along the same lines as access to education or healthcare. Regulator the Ministry of Transport and Communications has pushed through the law, which will oblige ISPs to offer connections of at least 1Mbps to all of Finland's approximately 5.3 million citizens by July 2010.
The regulator says the mandate is necessary in order to improve the availability of broadband in Finland's remote rural areas, and that it will improve business opportunities, access to online services such as banking, and quality of life for people living in sparsely populated regions.
The legislation is part of an ambitious commitment from the Finnish government to provide universal broadband services, which includes a pledge to make 100Mbps broadband access available to all Finnish residents by 2015.
* Finland Leading the Way in Broadband Rollout: Finland is already one of the world's most connected countries, with an estimated 96% of citizens enjoying Internet access. This is no mean feat in a geographically challenging region, with a quarter of the country lying above the Arctic Circle. The country has followed the Scandinavian trend of fixed-to-mobile migration, with increasing numbers of citizens choosing to bypass the limitations of fixed-line telecoms and Internet for mobile-only connectivity. As such, Finland's operators have pushed ahead with high-speed next-generation network (NGN) deployment, with all three mobile operators deploying UMTS900 technology, and the government has now taken the significant step of making access to broadband mandatory.
* Ensuring Broadband for Underserved Regions: Underserved regions, generally in remote or sparsely populated areas, are a key area on which the European Union (EU) has chosen to focus in its drive for universal Internet connectivity. Many such regions do not present a viable business opportunity for operators, either because of disproportionate network construction costs or just low density of potential customers, meaning that incentives must be offered. In the United Kingdom, a "broadband tax" is set to be levied on all fixed-line connections, which will be used by the government to fund rural broadband access, with an aim to bring speeds of at least 2Mbps to all areas by 2013. Only this week, Spain's ministry of industry opened a public consultation on extending the concept of universal service to cover broadband access; this will consult on topics such as the minimum speed, the utilisation of wireless technologies for broadband provision, and related pricing models. The problem of bringing broadband to underserved regions is one the EU is in the process of tackling; this will be a tricky task if it is to continue to ensure that competition flourishes.
* Europe Divided on Broadband Access Legislation: Broadband access legislation in Europe is currently piecemeal and generally only enacted by domestic governments as and when they see fit. The EU is pushing for a united approach to broadband access, saying that the current rules, hampered by a lack of uniformity and laden with inconsistencies in implementation, are failing to ensure an effective internal market in the region. Further, a key part of recent EU proposals has been to ensure access for competitors to any NGN roll-out by an incumbent or dominant operator, for a fee. This is vital to allow competition in broadband markets to flourish and avoid a return to the days of incumbent dominance of new technologies. As such, the EU insists that Europe risks falling behind the United States and Japan in the provision of advanced telecoms infrastructure and services. On the contrary, the largest operators—usually the former incumbents—maintain that the EU's quest to neuter their operational flexibility threatens their return on investment. This week, the Chief Technology Officer of Telekom Austria warned that EU regulation of NGNs could stifle investment, adding that Europe would fall behind the United States with fibre rollouts if regulation does not change. The incumbent operator is spending one billion euro (US$1.49 billion) on the first phase of its NGN, but has said it will not move on to phase two until it has a clearer idea of the regulation of new networks in future. Indeed, the EU has recently clashed with the Austrian regulator, as the differentiation between mobile and fixed-line broadband access becomes increasingly blurred.
* Piracy Threat to Universal Broadband Access: The EU has made it very clear that it regards Internet access as vital to economic development and education, and is opposed to the withdrawal of services, except by judicial review. However, the increasing prevalence of online piracy is currently threatening universal access policies in the bloc. The United Kingdom is currently considering a "three strikes" rule that would strip some people of their Internet access if they are accused of illegal file-sharing, controversially giving power to a government body (rather than the courts) to enforce this. The operators, however, have attacked these proposals as unfair and unworkable. A similar law has recently been watered down in France, where it was ruled unconstitutional to remove web access without a judicial review. Meanwhile, the United States is currently embroiled in a high-profile wrangle over net neutrality, which seeks to insure that operators cannot give unfair priority to certain services over their networks. The EU has made it clear that it sees broadband as a fundamental right, but universal access policies are currently being threatened by anti-piracy legislation.