EU countries want tech firms to pay for telecoms infrastructure

European Union member countries want tech companies like Google and Netflix to chip in cash for telecoms infrastructure in order to ramp up 5G across the bloc.

The Council — which represents the 27 EU governments — on May 11 adopted its position on a major policy program to make Europe a technology leader by 2030.

Hinting at a future tax for online platforms’ use of telecoms infrastructure, EU capitals wrote that “all market actors benefiting from the digital transformation” should assume their social responsibilities and “make a fair and proportionate contribution to the costs of public goods, services and infrastructures,” according to a text seen by POLITICO.

EU countries, however, resisted a push by French officials to explicitly single out “big platforms” as being responsible for paying for digital infrastructure, which was part of an earlier draft seen by POLITICO.

The digital policy program does not create a tax, nor does it specify what is considered a fair contribution. The Council will also have to negotiate details with the European Parliament.

However, the language that was added points to a mounting inclination from European politicians to make foreign online platforms bear some of the burden for costly infrastructure, which is currently shouldered by European telecoms firms like Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton last week told French newspaper Les Echos that the EU’s executive body was working on a law to get Big Tech to help pay for telecoms infrastructure, which could be presented before the end of the year.

“There are players who generate a lot of traffic that then enables their business but who have not been actually contributing to enable that traffic; they have not been contributing to enabling the investments in the rollout of connectivity,” said Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager on May 5.

Telecoms companies have been complaining for more than a decade that Google’s YouTube and Netflix have been getting a free ride on costly infrastructure, while tech companies counter that they’re indirectly contributing through content consumers’ internet subscription payments. Major firms like Google and Facebook have also ramped up their investment in undersea internet cables, the world’s digital information pipelines.

As part of the 2030 digital policy program laid out in September 2021, the Commission proposed to set specific targets for digitalizing the EU, including doubling the share of microchips production and ensuring at least 75 percent of European businesses are using cloud services, big data and artificial intelligence.

EU countries want all of the bloc’s citizens and companies — from rural Bulgaria to central Brussels — to have access to affordable high-speed internet by 2030. Cities should also have access to 5G.

The EU’s executive body also wanted to monitor how governments were working to achieve those digital goals, but member countries watered down possibilities for the Commission to hold them accountable — a point of contention likely to crop up again in later negotiations.

Negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament should start in the coming weeks after lawmakers vote on their changes to the EU’s digital policy program on May 17.