The internet, like water, is a common good. It is much more than a platform for entertainment or a virtual location where goods can be bought and sold. In fact, it enables the general public to access, process and share information. It is also essential when dealing with administrative and public bodies. In March 2014, the European commission recognised access to drinking water as a human right, and recognising access to the internet as a human right should be the priority of the EU digital agenda. This would be the best possible starting point from which to implement the bridging of the European Union’s digital divide - the digital agenda’s next priority.
There are currently vast areas of Europe - mainly rural areas, where investment is less profitable - without a fast and reliable internet connection.
I fear, however, that the internet is not at all like water for the new European commission, who instead see its importance as linked exclusively to the digital single market and to its development.
This became abundantly clear during the European parliament hearing of the new commissioner for digital economy and society Günther Oettinger.
Oettinger actually declared he was in favour of ideas and concepts that I believe represent a danger to users, such as the creation of European telecommunications giants. This would run the risk of the EU following an American model, where a very small number of giants have seen off all competition on the fixed network and currently constitute a de facto oligopoly.
In a scenario without competition, the opportunity for choice is taken away from the consumer and companies care little about putting in the investment required to bridge the digital divide.
The way to ensure everyone has a fast and reliable internet connection, however, is not necessarily by getting the telecommunications companies’ investments, which have so far been scarce and ineffective in the broadband sector.
Instead, the EU should encourage bottom-up investment models that respond to the needs of users, rather than the needs of the market. I am convinced that the EU could achieve excellent results by encouraging the proliferation of mesh networks which in some cases have already been created on the initiative of citizens coming together.
A minimal individual ‘investment’ is required - less than the cost of purchasing a normal internet subscription - to yield exceptional results.
In Italy, for example, using mesh networks you can browse, surf, download or upload on the internet at 20-30 megabits per second, a speed no normal service providers will give you, even when uploading.
Mesh networks are seen as ‘shrubs’ that have sprung up on the 'logs' comprising the internet’s backbone. They are created on the initiative of non-profit cooperatives formed by citizens. A cooperative purchases web access at wholesale prices, and each member, using a small repeater located on the roof of their home, then bounces the signal back out to locations that are usually too far apart to be reached directly.
This is a highly efficient, basic, low-cost solution with the advantage that it focuses on the local community and cooperation between individuals, and marginalises the motivation for market advantage and profit.
Mesh networks are not currently supported either publicly or privately in any particular way, yet they would be fully entitled to receive support from the EU should the digital agenda grant the internet the status it deserves - the same as that of water, of being a common good.