Founder Karel Helsen explains: “Our goal is to stimulate and speed up the rollout of fibre, but also to realise economic growth in the Netherlands with a truly modern telecom infrastructure. Fibre boosts productivity, makes a country more competitive and attracts businesses. Digitalisation of society and the economy is speeding up at an exponential rate yet there seems to be little awareness and sense of urgency at the level of decision-makers. Many people think new growth will happen automatically as Europe makes its way out of the economic crisis, but this growth will only occur as a result of digitalisation.”
“For years, the Netherlands could be found at the top of all kinds of rankings related to innovation and infrastructure. But in recent years, ICT innovation has been lagging. Ten years ago, we were in the top three countries in terms of FTTH rollout. Now, however, we’re not even in the top ten. We have lengthy discussions about this with members of parliament. In some countries, governments see that digitalisation is vital to their nation’s future and they’ll invest in developing the required infrastructure.”
“In Europe, the telecom market wasn’t liberalised until 1998. Portugal followed two years later. So since 2000 infrastructure has been left to the free market and competition. North America was liberalised 15 years earlier, and this went more smoothly. However, Americans are happy to pay a premium for the right speeds and services. The Netherlands is actually an ideal place for fibre: there’s a high data centre density and we’re a vital internet hub. The soil is generally easy to dig up. Our government is focusing on developing all kinds of infrastructure, digital and physical, but if the market players won’t rise to the occasion, nothing will happen. Politicians are very honest with us and often admit they don’t feel confident to make decisions – the subject matter is so complex, and requires in-depth knowledge of technological, economic, legislative and social factors.”
“In Dutch urban areas, there’s usually just one fibre operator. However, ideally, the country would be covered in fibre, which would be open to every party on the market. The leading fibre provider Reggefiber, owned by incumbent KPN since 2014, were asked to open their network to all for example. In a municipal area, a connection might cost € 1,000, but in a rural areas, that might be anything between € 2,000 and € 4,000. “The business case isn’t attractive for most investors, but there are various local initiatives pushing for fibre rollouts in rural areas. Some provinces have introduced development funding, supporting private parties who want to roll out fibre in remote regions. KPN are gradually rolling out in rural areas and there’s also support from RaboCIF, the Communication Infrastructure Fund developed by the Rabobank, one of our country’s main banks.”
“In the Netherlands, we have some 2 million homes passed, out of a total of 7 million homes. Only 40% actually subscribe, though. Legacy investments in coaxial cable and copper are still being squeezed for bandwidth. But this isn’t a solution for the future. There’s a definite limit to what the medium can handle, especially with the developing Internet of Things. More and more people will want symmetrical networks and high-definition streaming to multiple devices in the home. Once people have seen what fast broadband can bring them, demand will increase. We’ve seen this is Scandinavia, back in the 1990s. Fast broadband can provide solutions in all kinds of areas, such as healthcare. Elderly people can safely live at home for longer, for example. Educational facilities need fibre to become a breeding ground for tomorrow’s ICT breakthroughs.”
“Whilst we in the Netherlands debate who should be paying for new infrastructure, there seems to be a greater awareness in Asian countries that if fast infrastructure isn’t ubiquitous by 2020, there will be trouble because they’ll miss out on a lot of growth opportunities.”
Karel Helsen was involved in setting up the eSociety Platform in 2009, following his tenure as President of the FTTH Council Europe. In that capacity, he focused on closer cooperation with other FTTH Councils and stimulating the fibre lobby at the level of European countries.
The eSociety Platform brings together parties to jointly stimulate innovative developments in ICT, digitalization and High Speed Internet. By doing so, economic growth and increased employment and quality of life are to be realized for consumers and businesses in the Netherlands.
One of the foundation’s key activities is an annual conference with parties such as leading knowledge and innovation institute TNO and local government. The eSociety platform initiates all kinds of development projects to show the benefits and added value of fibre through real-life case studies.
75 companies, organizations and municipalities participate in the Platform. Members are mostly organisations deploying ultra high speed infrastructure solutions and applications supporting these, as well as government bodies and academic institutions. Members also come from sectors such as eTown, eHealth, eBusiness, EGovernment, eEntertainment and eEnergy and Startups companies in these fields.