EU €120m Wi-Fi spend explained, but not excused

It's a colossal waste, says basically everyone

Wi-fi symbol as chocolate dusting on cappuccino foam. Photo by Shutterstock

Opinion The deputy head of "Unit broadband" - a section of the European Commission dealing with “investment in high-capacity networks” - Herve Dupuy, flew into London to attend the Wi-Fi Now conference last week. He ran headlong into a combination of fulsome praise and dramatic criticism.

The first was from the founder and owner of the show, Claus Hetting, who welcomed Dupuy and said that the promise of the Commission to spend €120m on extending the reach of Wi-Fi was critically important to all the vendors attending the conference.

But as Dupuy outlined his plans to spend the first €20m by September 2017, after a rushed approval through the European Parliament, he was rounded on by analysts, Faultline included, telling him to save the money and not waste it.

Comments included musings that every MuniWi-Fi project ever launched has been switched off, were greeted by equanimity by the unruffled Dupuy, and a desire to learn from the Wi-Fi community.

The idea is to use a “first come, first served” basis for projects and a series of vouchers, to avoid municipalities taking the money and using it for something else. He told the audience that “It will be done on a first come first served basis, but with a country upper limit, so that it is shared equally across the EU.”

Dupuy also talked about the average spend per project being €20,000 for an AP, but said he would consult with the industry before putting that in concrete. The idea is to pay for the equipment and installation and running costs and maintenance for three years. The first round of funding would be used as a guideline to how the remaining two years of accelerated funding would be allocated.

We told him that we would call him in three years and ask what he thinks he got for the full €120m, if anything?

Repeatedly operators have tried to block municipality efforts to install Wi-Fi, with Cities like Barcelona having to block their service at 250 kilobits per second, in order to get permission to offer city-wide Wi-Fi, which is also used to drive its smart city initiatives.

Dupuy admitted that Spain was a problem, but he felt that a project there which offered full flavoured Wi-Fi might convince Spanish regulators to do away with this limitation. We thought that unlikely.

He added, “We will be collecting key performance indicators (KPIs) on how many connections, the connection QoS [quality of service], and how much bandwidth is used, so that we can tell which projects have been the most successful.”

He then contradicted this by saying, “Of course, a single AP in a small town centre is less likely to have a high number of people connect to it than one in a large city.”

We then asked, “Will this KPI data be made available to the public on a website?” To which he replied “What a good idea, I will look into that.” We also asked if the installations could charge the public after the support ran out and he said the Commission would also look at that. In fact, he also said that equipment could even be rented if that made the total cost of ownership lower than being acquired. But then would it have to go back after three years?

His presentation was focused on assuring operators that the initiative would offer no significant impact on competition, and there would be no duplication of any service or network which was already out there. This money is to put Wi-Fi where it is not today. The cash will come with light procurement rules and he called the initiative WiFi4EU and suggested that the true beneficiaries would be libraries and health centres and the like.

He also pointed to a dream that once a device had accessed any part of this network, its credentials would be in place for accessing all of them, so there would be a need for a credentials standard and shared AAA servers. There were a queue of companies wanting to help the Commission with cloud based performance data and authentication systems at the show, since the 20 or so stands mostly consisted of those types of offering.

However, the chances of someone logging into a Commission funded project in one part of the EU, and then finding another is highly unlikely. The commission may find 1,000 APs or projects, in a market that today has some 791,000 operator controlled Hotspots, not counting the 69 million Homespots. So every 791 hotspots you visit may end up being funded by the commission by the end of 2017. Not much need for a unified authentication system really.

The 1,000 or so projects to be given the go ahead in the first year can just as likely be indoors as outdoors, he said.

An earlier presentation at the show from Dan Rabinovitsj, the CTO of Ruckus, had already shown how much innovation into the business model his company had gone through in muni-wifi, and we know which one we would call if we were planning a project, and it would not be the Commission.

A website will be up in the next two months for applications, ven-dors will have to prove to the Commission that they are reputable and competent before they will be allowed to compete for vouchers. This is muni-WiFi madness all over again, on the whim of a Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who would rather be popular than achieve anything serious in his time in office.

We even asked if he would push for a public private partnership, to run a system as an exemplar, and Dupuy agreed that while this was a good idea and that some other initiatives, such as the Commission’s moves on IoT involved this, it would not be his approach. Shame, that might have worked and left a legacy. We’re sorry to have given Dupuy such a hard time, but we cannot stand to see Governments waste money on fripperies, no matter how well meaning.

Commission President Juncker had referred to this initiative in his State of the Union address, as he outlined the new Commission’s budget. In it he also said he wanted 5G installed across Europe by 2025.

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