French plans to include Internet access in the universal service caused deep divisions amongst EU telecoms ministers.
A memo was circulated before yesterday's telecoms council meeting in Brussels calling for the funding of Internet access for schools from the universal service budget. The latest EU definition of universal service includes only voice, fax and data transmissions up to 14,000 bits.
"It would seem legitimate to promote access to the information society by developing the definition of universal service and creating the possiblity of mobilizing universal service funds where they exist," the memo said.
The French proposal met with an enthusiastic reception from the Belgian, Italian and Greek ministers. Luxembourg already includes Internet access in its definition of universal service.
"When we decided the present defintion of universal service I think we made an awful blunder. By including only voice and fax, the pre-history of the information society, we could hardly have done less," Elio Di Rupo, Belgian deputy Prime Minister and minister for telecoms, said.
Di Rupo said the definition of universal service should be changed to include Internet access, but member states should be allowed to decide exactly what proportion of the budget should come from universal service funds and how much should come directly from government.
Italian secretary of state for post and telecoms, Vincenzo Maria Vita, said: "What is the universal service if it does not include Internet access for schools. This would be an empty debate otherwise."
Whilst Austria, Spain and Portugal suggested a wait-and-see policy in line with European Commission thinking on the subject, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK were opposed to any extension of the universal service to include Internet services.
UK parliamentary under-secretary of state responsible for telecoms, Barbara Roche, said: "We cannot accept the French and Belgian position that Internet access for schools should be part of the universal service. Real competition at the local level is the best way of doing this."
Dutch minister for public works, Annemarie Jorritsma- Lebbink, said: "The money for this should come directly from the education budget."
This view was echoed by the Irish minister for public enterprises Mary O'Rourke, as well as the Danish, Finnish and Swedish ministers.
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