Wired Sweden offers EU a recipe for more broadband: Think local

30 October 2014. By Magnus Franklin.

When asked how to ramp up the rollout of high-speed broadband, telecom regulators tend to mention vectoring, virtual unbundling and megabits persecond.

Göran Marby prefers to talk about cows lining up to be milked by machines. “Cows are not stupid animals,” Sweden’s top telecom cop says, leaning back in a purple chair at his desk in central Stockholm and putting up his feet. “They are one of the few animals that queue.”

Sweden is home to broadband networks so extensive that basic broadband was available to more than 99 percent of the population by early this year. Fiberoptic cables stretch deep into the country’s forests and farmland, slithering all the way to rural stations, where cows are fed and milked by robots that send farmers an instant text message if something is amiss.

And therein lies a lesson for the rest of the EU, as it struggles to reach a goal of making fast Internet access available for all by 2020.

In 2013, less than 2 percent of EU households subscribed to broadband of 100Mbps or more. In Sweden, more than 10 percent had taken up such connections, and subscriptions were available to 60 percent of households.

Only 390 Swedish households now lack a decent Internet connection, and the regulator has a list of their addresses. It’s just a few pages long. The secret to Sweden’s digital success lies in getting local communities involved, Marby says during an interview in his office at the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority overlooking Stockholm’s wide, leafy Valhallavägen boulevard.

“The regions and cities were key,” he says. “It was when we started to reach them — when a city [or a region] developed its own digital agenda — that is when things started happening.”

As in Sweden, so in the EU, Marby argues: The rollout of superfast broadband across Europe could get a boost if local communities knew where to turn to share expertise, get fresh ideas, and identify barriers to building the networks they need to join the digital economy.

What Marby has in mind is a pan-European version of the Swedish Broadband Forum — a group instrumental in ensuring that high-capacity networks have spread across the farms and woodlands that carpet the frigid northern state. Hence his reference to queuing cows and milk robots.

The robots feed and milk cows at remote stations, analyzing the results in real time, says Marby, who grew up in rural southwestern Sweden. But the technology is so data-intensive that it depends on high-capacity fiber-optic links, he says.

The milking station was connected during a wider rollout of fiber-optic cable in the region of Umeå, in the far north of Sweden, allowing the new technology to be installed.

“It is totally magical, how this technology can develop, and it’s these examples that drive development,” says Marby, who once ran the Swedish business of network equipment maker Cisco Systems.

This kind of rollout can easily be replicated elsewhere, he says. “It could just as well be Romania. Given the investment to refurbish the whole farm, the cost of the fiber was negligible.”

Everything but regulation

Marby has doubled this year as the chairman of an umbrella group of European telecom authorities, putting him in close contact with colleagues from Portugal to Finland and from Cyprus to Ireland.

Next year, the top Portuguese regulator, Fátima Barros, takes over the mandate at the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications, or Berec.

Marby stresses that he wasn’t seeking to foist a grand policy plan onto the European stage in his final months atop Berec. But he has experienced a model that has worked well in Sweden, and he thinks it might be a template for the EU, he says. And with a new team of EU Commissioners taking office next week, now is a particularly ripe time to float new policy ideas.

The Swedish Broadband Forum grew out of the government’s 2009 Internet strategy. Its secretariat is housed in the premises of the regulator PTS, and its board includes representatives from telecom operators, broadcasters, tech companies and municipalities.

Over the years, the forum has tackled questions ranging from how to keep broadband networks secure and resilient, to how to line up financing. The group has reached conclusions that have, at times, been far removed from traditional telecom territory.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with [telecom] regulation, but rather a practical approach,” Marby says.

Imagine, for example, that a network is built and operated by a club of farmers, he says: “Who goes out at 5 a.m. on New Year’s Day because someone has cut through a fiber cable?”

Other obstacles identified by the group include rules that prevented cables from being dug into the earth alongside roads, or the absence of roads and electricity networks that operators need when they put up base stations for rural mobile coverage. The group also discovered that municipalities that might have seemed
uninterested in broadband were actually suffering from limited knowhow about building networks, running them, or obtaining state funding for rollouts. So the forum “started to look at educating municipalities and developing information material for them,” he says.

Location, location, location

Marby’s description of the broadband-forum model is — in many ways — the antithesis of EU telecom policy in recent years, which has gravitated toward a cookie-cutter approach in the name of building a single telecom market.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to a shovel,” Marby says. Despite the many differences across Europe — in how towns are laid out, how municipalities are administered and how much demand exists for digital services — “there are many similar problems,” he says.

To make the Swedish Broadband Forum model work at the EU level, the initiative would need the political backing of a European commissioner in Brussels. The commissioner could then appoint a board to run the body, but the forum should be overseen by an organization with deeper roots in local communities, such as
the EU’s Committee of the Regions, Marby argues.

“It is at that level that we need to solve these issues,” he says.

The model also requires the creation of a separate secretariat to ensure “continuity” of the forum’s work. In Sweden, this has meant that the Broadband Forum has survived an election in which a left-wing government has displaced the center-right politicians who founded the forum. Housing minister Mehmet Kaplan took over the chairmanship of the group last week. The secretariat should set clear timelines for each topic to be worked through and wrapped up, Marby suggests.

There should be no dawdling before conclusions are drawn up, he says. One possibility — should the idea take root — would be to have Berec host the secretariat. Berec was born out of the EU’s 2009 telecom framework law, and has since grown into a highly influential institution in shaping the evolution of telecom policy and law. Because superfast broadband is such a local issue, it will inevitably spawn different models in different places, Marby says.

“In Sweden, we have the municipal network model, alongside investors and the incumbent [telecom operator], and there will surely be other variants,” he says.

“But above all, demand is always key.”

“I don’t think this solves all of Europe’s problems,” he says. “But it all links together.”