by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day
Recognizing the impact of the digital world on the means by which people transmit information, the European Commission (EC), the legislative branch of the European Union, is taking measures to make Europe a vocal contributor to the shaping of digital technologies, access, and policy.
With the broad goal of making Europe the world's "most competitive knowledge-based society," the EC has implemented two action plans (plans that chart courses of action). The first plan was completed in 2002 and has been followed by eEurope 2005. eEurope 2005 sets several broad objectives in connection to the knowledge-based society goal - according to this executive summary, it seeks "to provide a favourable environment for private investment and for the creation of new jobs, to boost productivity, to modernize public services, and to give everyone the opportunity to participate in the global information society." The EC has created electronic government, learning, social, and commercial programs, such as eBusiness and eCommerce, in connection to these objectives. It has also launched eEurope+ to serve the ten member states which joined the EU in May of 2004.
As part of their mission the eEurope 2005 plan and Europe's information society more generally must be flexible enough to accommodate new technological achievements, such as the development and proliferation of wireless fidelity, or WiFi technology. While WiFi has rapidly taken off around the world, Europe has seen particularly extensive development. Precise data about the numbers of hotspots by region vary widely, but Otto Pohl admonishes that while the United States and Asia took early leads in making wireless networks available, Europe is fast catching up. Pohl singles out airports in particular, while Elizabetta Povoledo points to cafés, hotels, commercial, and transportation centers (including airports) as being the fastest proliferators.
Also fueled by consumer demand is the ability to make a wireless hotspot travel with its users across a given space. This is occurring in a variety of manners, in particular on trains in France. The Société National de Chemins de Fer (SNCF), the national railroad operator in France, has experimented with hotspots on trains between Paris, Bordeaux, and Pau, as is detailed in this FirmaFrance.com page. The SNCF tested this service between November of 2003 and March of 2004, but so far the results of the test have not been released. The U.K., however, has picked up where France seemingly left off. According to this report, train operator GNER began implementing on board WiFi in the Spring of 2004. This follow-up report says passengers responded positively to the service, and that another British train operator, Virgin, was in the process of testing a similar service.
There are outstanding issues, to be sure. For example, wireless Internet service providers operate competing networks in public spaces instead of allowing one network accessible by anyone within range. Povoledo noted this problem in Italy:
One problem here is that the various service providers don't have commercial agreements that allow for roaming between companies. That means that access via Freestation bought at Rome's Termini train station won't go anywhere at Milan's Malpensa airport, which is covered by Megabeam.
But wireless Internet service providers are aware of this issue and continue to sign roaming agreements with each other to counteract this problem. iPass, for example, says that it "envisions a world where all workers are able to connect to their information from all locations" as part of its vision of global connectivity.
With consumer demand increasing both in Europe and around the world, and with companies working to provide increased WiFi coverage of Europe, WiFi will continue to grow, and the European Commission will need to incorporate this growth into the eEurope initiative. As the technology itself is still very new, the EC has had little time to adapt its regulations to encompass WiFi networks or access points across Europe. But as these networks continue to converge, and as their reach across the borders of the EU member states continues to grow, the Commission has an interest in either implementing new Europe-wide regulations or adapting existing ones to regulate WiFi networks. Furthermore, as these networks continue to be used for commercial purposes they increasingly align themselves as part of the eBusiness and eCommerce sections of the eEurope initiative. This necessitates that open market and fair competition regulation be extended to commercial applications of WiFi networks as well.