Future Tense

The Crazy-Ambitious, Maybe-Impossible Plan to Install Free Wi-Fi Across the European Union

European Union flags are pictured outside the European Commission building in Brussels, Belgium. 

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The president of the European Union’s executive branch has a vision: free Wi-Fi across the whole of the EU. During his State of the European Union address this week, European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg announced a plan to install wireless internet in the public spaces of “every European village and every city” by 2020. By 2025, he wants to “fully deploy 5G, the fifth generation of mobile communication systems, across the European Union.”

It’s a sweeping and ambitious plan, with the rhetoric to match.

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“As the world goes digital, we also have to empower our artists and creators and protect their works. Artists and creators are our crown jewels,” Juncker said in his speech. “The creation of content is not a hobby. It is a profession. And it is part of our European culture.”

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The idea, complete with the super-hip title WiFi4EU, sounds lofty and wonderful and too good to be true. So, obviously, there are some not-insignificant impediments to its realization. First of all, at this point, it’s just a proposal. The plan still needs to pass the European Parliament and national ministers, Newsweek reported. If it does, then the money could be available by the end of next year.

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The money. There’s the second catch. The European Union will put €120 million ($135 million) toward the effort, for installing the network infrastructure. The BBC reported that “local bodies will have to cover subscription costs, maintenance and other expenses.” A chief analyst at the telecoms consultancy ConnectivityX, Mark Newman, spoke to the BBC, and questioned “whether frugal councils will really see it as a priority to deliver free wi-fi in all their buildings and squares.”

In his speech, Juncker also laid out plans to “abolish mobile roaming charges” for people using their cellphones in an EU country that is not their own. Though, if EU-wide Wi-Fi existed, roaming charges would be far less of an issue.

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