Internet

Bringing Broadband Access to Finland's Boondocks


Nordic countries are proud of giving their citizens the good life. Finns, for example, have the legal right to social security, universal health care—and now, broadband access. A law that took effect on July 1 guarantees all Finns access to fast Internet service—1 megabit per second or better, speedy enough to download an MP3 in less than a minute—for "a reasonable price," suggested at no more than $50 a month. The law was the legacy of previous Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who stepped down last month, and sought to bridge the digital divide between wired cities like Helsinki and the less connected countryside. His program also provides $83 million to build high-speed networks of up to 100 Mbps in some of the country's most remote regions.

One such place is Utsjoki, Lapland, the European Union's northernmost community, where fishing and reindeer herding are common jobs. The Finnish government is paying more than half the $3.4 million cost to provide Utsjoki's 1,300 people—spread across an area larger than Rhode Island—with an underground fiber-optic trunk line. Citizens still have to pay for the cable that connects their homes to the trunk—a cost that can total thousands of dollars. "A good network is something you have to have these days," says Antti Katekeetta, a municipal manager in Utsjoki, who says the new system should be more reliable than either above-ground phone lines, which can blow down in storms, or the region's patchy wireless reception.

"Some households are in such remote areas that markets won't provide any fiber or fast connection," says Communications Minister Suvi Lindén, who estimates that absent government intervention, 4 percent of Finland's 5.3 million people could go without decent broadband access. The government, now run by Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi, hopes the speedy connections won't just eliminate the digital divide but will lower the cost of providing some essential services by, for example, enabling online health monitoring or virtual doctor visits.

Juha-Pekka Weckström, managing director of TeliaSonera Finland, the country's largest phone company, says that remote areas can be covered more efficiently by improving the wireless network rather than laying expensive cable. In 2008, TeliaSonera told 53,000 rural subscribers it planned to convert their traditional copper network, which supplied both voice and broadband Internet, to 3G wireless. It would have cost the equivalent of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the region's rotting telephone poles, according to Weckström. The Finnish government, eager to ensure that no one would be left behind, made the 1 Mbps decree the next year. TeliaSonera will bid on the government's fiber projects, and is building the Utsjoki trunk line. Weckström says that some of the planned high-speed projects will be unprofitable even with government subsidies, and TeliaSonera will steer clear of those. The Communications Ministry confirms that of the nine high-speed pilot projects now under way, two received no bids.

Karvia, a town in Western Finland, is the site of a project that did receive bids, and Tarja Hosiasluoma, the municipal manager there, is looking forward to getting a fiber connection. It currently takes her half an hour to pay a bill using her plodding, 236 Kbps connection, so it's worth it to her to pay the $1,260 it will cost to hook her home up to the new fiber-optic trunk line. (The actual cost is several times that, but the local and national governments are subsidizing the bill.) About 60 percent of Karvia's 1,100 households will do the same, she says.

Not that Finns are happy about the price. "It's too expensive," says Katekeetta, of Utsjoki. "People who live on the periphery have to pay more to get what others get for free."

The bottom line: The Finnish government now guarantees fast Internet for all citizens. For those living in rural areas, it still comes at a high cost.

Ben-Aaron is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Helsinki.

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