RealTime IT News

Spain Sees Net as Universal Right

Spain will join France in asking the European Union to consider Internet access a "universal right"--like education and healthcare--thus allowing financed access at an "accessible price."

"Spain and France--once the EU telecommunications regulatory directives are up for revision--will present a joint proposal to introduce what we could sum up as 'Internet as universal utility,'" said Rafael Arias Salgado, Spain's minister of Public Works and the Economy.

A similar status is already applied to phone access.

"We think that the time has arrived, in the realm of community legislation, that Internet access as an absolutely decisive instrument-- particularly in sectors like education and health--must form part of what we consider universal services," he said.

If approved, the proposal would allow Spain to finance Net access with funds earmarked by Spain's General Telecommunications Law. This money, while "not a subsidy," would partially finance those companies (chosen through a public bid), "willing to extend networks to every corner of Spain."

The EU opened the telecommunications market--with its 380 million consumers--to competition on Jan. 1, 1998. Free trade provisions of both EU legislation and the General Telecommunications Law currently impede any type of aid or subsidy--except for so-called "universal services."

"Defining the scope of the universal service obligation represents a delicate balance," stated a European Commission report on telecommunications. "Too narrow a vision of universal service and citizens may be kept out. . .too broad a vision and the competitive forces which are the principal driver of better services, lower prices and greater innovation will be held back as new players in the market will be deterred from entering."

Out of a population of nearly 40 million, 2.5 million Spaniards have access to the Internet. Of those, 1.8 million are considered habitual users. In addition to the cost of an ISP contract, they must pay the cost of a local phone call. Last week, the Spanish government approved a flat rate fee of 5,000 pesetas ($33) per month, to take effect at the end of March.