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European Commission Head Touts Plan for Free Roaming and Wi-Fi Across the EU

September 14, 2016, 12:53 PM UTC
EU Commission President Juncker chairs a meeting of the EU executive body in Brussels
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker chairs a meeting of the EU executive body in Brussels, Belgium, July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Photograph by Francois Lenoir / Reuters

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker touted a plan on Wednesday for free mobile roaming and wireless Internet in cities across the European Union, trying to rally popular support for a bloc battered by Brexit.

Juncker highlighted the initiatives in an annual State of the Union address that sought to counter Euroscepticism with concrete examples of how technocratic institutions in Brussels can deliver improvements to people’s everyday lives.

The telecoms industry has been lobbying intensely for more flexible rules to allow them to boost revenue and invest in costly fast broadband to help the bloc to catch up with the United States and Asia.

The European Commission also proposed reining in Internet giants such as Google (GOOG), Facebook’s (FB) WhatsApp, and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Skype by extending telecoms security rules to web-based apps.

Some of the plans could force technology firms to channel revenues from Internet services to their telecoms rivals.

The unveiling of Juncker’s reform plan starts what is expected to be a fierce fight among EU lawmakers, member states, and industry groups before it can become law.

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“When you travel in Europe with your mobile phone, you will be able to feel at home anywhere in Europe thanks to these new roaming rules,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

In a surprise move this month before the speech, Juncker withdrew proposals to limit the number of days consumers can use their mobile phones abroad without paying extra fees after criticism that the rules favored telecoms firms.

He ordered the draft to be revised in what allies and officials said showed the EU executive wanted to be seen to listen to voters three months after Britons opted to leave the bloc.

Juncker said the EU would also create a legal framework to promote the expansion of high-speed Internet and efforts to protect the personal online data of citizens across the 28-nation bloc.

“We propose today to equip every European village and every city with free wireless Internet access,” Juncker said, without giving details of how the EU would help to achieve this goal within the next decade.

He added that the EU would work to defend people’s right to privacy, saying: “Europeans do not like drones overhead recording their every move, or companies stockpiling their every mouse click. In Europe privacy matters.”

He also promoted a copyright proposal that could give publishers more bargaining power with Google when demanding payment from the world’s most popular Internet search engine for displaying snippets of their news.

“The creation of content is not a hobby, it is a profession,” he said. “As the world goes digital we have also to empower our artists and creators…I want journalists, publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work.”

As the EU executive seeks to reform the bloc’s telecoms and copyright industries, it has balanced such populist initiatives with proposals that favored telecoms operators such as Deutsche Telekom and Orange.

The EU initiatives got a thumbs up from ETNO, the European telecoms operators’ association whose members include Orange and Telefonica.

“We need to ensure that the new code (proposal) provides technologically inclusive incentives, allowing our members to deliver a further increase in broadband investment,” ETNO Chairman Steven Tas said.

The telecoms industry had already lobbied against the burden of the original proposal of allowing them to charge extra only for clients who use their phones abroad for more than 90 days a year or 30 in a row.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) welcomed Juncker’s reforms but expressed concerns they would favor dominant market players and do little to lower prices on international calls.

“Consumers need operators to compete with one another in the market to deliver innovative services at cheaper prices,” BEUC head Monique Goyens said in a statement.