An Interview with Frans-Anton Vermast, iNEC

December 5, 2008

in Expert Insight, Muni/Broadband, The Blog


In an effort to bring you the most up-to-date information on broadband developments around the world, I’ve decided to enrich the content of this blog with insight and opinions from key broadband experts. The first topic I plan to cover in a small series of interviews is municipal broadband. And I couldn’t think of a better way to engage the matter than interviewing Mr. Frans-Anton Vermast, the Director External Affairs of the International Network of E-Communities (i-NEC). As a European public and government affairs consultant (including regulatory issues) Frans-Anton Vermast has been involved from the outset in the Amsterdam Fibre from the Home initiative ( Since 2004 he has built up considerable business and regulatory knowledge on open communication infrastructures based on glass fibre techniques in the Netherlands and Europe. He has a great deal of experience with local government and municipality participation in these initiatives, from an economical-social perspective at both a city/town and a rural level.

Frans-Anton kindly accepted my invitation to join the e-business forum’s workshop in Kavala on “Fiber-to-the-Home / Fiber-to-the-Building” and deliver a keynote speech on iNEC and the Amsterdam FTTH project. He was also kind enough to let me interview him on the role and purpose of iNEC regarding the global Fiber-to-the-Home initiatives. Both having a tight schedule, the interview was conducted on our way back to the airport, so as much as I would like to podcast this interview the surrounding noise from the highway traffic resulted in a low recording quality. For that, I had to publish the interview in writting; enjoy it:

Frans-Anton thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you on iNEC’s activities. Before we start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got yourself involved in the fiber business?

In 2004 I was asked by the vice mayor of Amsterdam Mark van der Horst to become his political assistant, and one of the portfolios he had was ICT and FTTH. I was just an interim political assistant as he was already recruiting a new one. Then I got in touch with the project team of Citynet and we acknowledged that there had to be a lot of lobbying for the FTTH especially in the national level but also in Brussels. From there on, I was hired by Citynet and the development corporation of the city of Amsterdam to do the European & public affairs of Citynet, the Amsterdam FTTH project. As Amsterdam is a member of iNEC, I got involved with iNEC. When Hans Tijl, the deputy director of the development corporation of Amsterdam and responsible for the development of the Citynet project, was voted chairman of iNEC, he asked me if I could assist iNEC to become bigger and to make sure that we establish a global mutual interest for FTTH and open access based networks.

So how long have you been engaged in FTTH matters with iNEC?

I have been voted in as the director external affairs in May but it’s both the combination. Lots of people would like to hear the story of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam model and some people would like to know more about iNEC and I try to combine it. I truly believe that you need collaboration on a larger scale so telling the story of Amsterdam is too small. We have to put it on a greater perspective and iNEC is the ideal environment for that. Besides, there are different forms of municipal fiber.

So as I understand, iNEC has started as a European initiative initially?

No, even better it started as a Dutch initiative with Kenniswijk in Eindhoven and Almere Kennisstad as the first members. It was promoted by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and from there on it took on Kuala Lumpur and then it went global. Amsterdam was the 5th or 6th member. The other members are UTOPIA, 13 cities around Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Gauteng province in South Africa, Manchester, Malta, Trikala, Amsterdam, Almere and Seltjarnares, a suburb of Reykjavik in Iceland.

Is iNEC’s ultimate goal to become an umbrella association and in essence gather under its arms as many municipalities with broadband aspirations as it possibly can?

Yes, what we’ve liked to do is to share best and next practices on municipal initiatives on broadband and we tend to focus on services instead on the infrastructure. It’s a chicken and egg discussion. Is the infrastructure not there because the services are not there or are the services not there because the infrastructure is not there? I think for the infrastructure there are worldwide organizations which advocate the deployment of fiber. What I would like to do is getting these proofs of concept as you’ve called them (note: I referred to this during the workshop) or best practices from municipalities that have deployed fiber and show what the tangible benefits are for the local communities and municipalities.

Some of the organizations you mention are the 3 FTTH Councils?

Yes, for example you have the 3 FTTH Councils and you have 2 or 3 more worldwide organizations or per continent organizations that advocate fiber to the home.

So you are saying that iNEC is an organization aiming at information dissemination among its members.

Yes among its members but also to see if we can help potential new members with their problems. As we already have some knowledge in-house it’s stupid to keep it for ourselves, especially in this web2.0 era. So why not share it and make a strong organization to advocate for fiber to the home as we believe that fiber is the way forward for social and economic development especially on a municipality and regional scale.

What does it take for a municipality to become an iNEC member? Are there some minimum requirements for membership?

Yes, you’ll have to fill-out a questionnaire with 4-5 pages of all kinds of questions, if you fit into the organization with the other members and if you have something to add to the association, then the other members will have to approve. So you should have at least one best practice, unique in the world that you could share with the rest of the members. And of course there’s a financial component but I think that’s a least important issue to becoming a member.

So do the municipalities need to have some sort of broadband infrastructure in place?

There are just 2 requirements. One of them is a broadband infrastructure but more important the members have to sign the iNEC declaration of open access networks. If they have fiber but they don’t have open access then unfortunately we have to look further for another member.

The broadband infrastructure has to be public or not? There are municipalities that due to private competition have already broadband infrastructure in their area, although not publicly owned.

The infrastructure must not necessarily be owned by the municipality. For example, in Kuala Lumpur infrastructure is owned by a municipality-like company and Amsterdam you see a very small part of the municipality is investing in the passive layer of infrastructure Together with commercial parties and housing corporations the Amsterdam municipality is minority shareholders in the public-private-partnership that owns the passive layer. So it can be from totally owned up to partially or having a minority part. It does not really matter as long as the network is operated on open access principles.

Based on what you’ve seen around the world, how do you see municipal broadband developing in Europe and how this is compared with similar initiatives around the world?

It is very difficult to compare but there are local initiatives in France, in Sweden, in the Netherlands, in Greece, in Italy that are developing in a small scale but as EU originating public investing initiatives have to be approved by Brussels people are very cautious to develop commercially available broadband infrastructure. Also, we have a competitive disadvantage against copper and coaxial networks. These two parties are lobbying against or directly fighting fiber deployments. On the other hand you have examples like Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, where there are governments saying “yes we are going to do it”; so it is difficult to compare. For yet another example, in Australia the urban areas are quite easy to access. But to connect the rural areas is a very costly task.

I understand, but do you see any common denominator in all these efforts? There must be some common ground in all these efforts for FTTH.

Yes, I think most of the local initiatives have one founding father with a vision, a leader with a vision that spells “this is the way forward, if we want to stay ahead both economically and socially”. And the other common denominator is that there is always some sort of municipality involvement.

Municipal initiatives are referenced often in US and in Europe. Although public interest for local communities’ broadband efforts is evident and many of them are repeatedly referenced as best broadband practices, I haven’t seen this becoming the next practice for the continent. Many would expect that after 4-5 years already showcasing municipal broadband a larger number of municipalities would engage in active broadband planning. What are your thoughts on that? Why do you think this is not happening?

First of all, it is very costly experience, the capital expenditures up front is very high and up to now there are very few large private investors that would like to participate in fiber to the home projects. And I think that is the major reason why this is not getting off. The other reason is that Brussels is watching very closely to similar initiatives and wants to make sure that it does not result in market distortion. So local authorities are a little cautious of what Brussels is going to tell. For example if you start a municipal broadband project and Brussels says after one year, “sorry this is wrong, we can not allow that and we are going to punish you or fine you”, then you have to have all the certainties and I think that not all the municipalities have the capacity to do all the development and investigation work before they deploy the fiber network because a lot of knowledge on the technical side as well as on the social and other aspects is needed. This is why I think the majority of the municipalities are reluctant to do the whole thing. And exactly for the same reason I find impressive the bravery of many small communities that take their chances and just do it. Whatsoever, I think fiber is the way forward and the people who do it think this is the way forward, and we haven’t been proven wrong yet. So it probably may take just a little more time. To give you an example, in the Netherlands, it took us some years to get the market parties slightly interested to cooperate and to collaborate with municipalities to invest in fiber infrastructure.

In south Europe, like for example in Greece, most initiatives are largely dependent on the central government, however, the northern EU members are very keen in developing broadband infrastructure on their own. How do you comment on that and how do you think Greece for example could reverse the situation and make the municipalities more active?

Well, that’s a very difficult question. What you tend to see in the northern part of Europe, especially Denmark, and Sweden, is that it is the electricity companies or the utility companies that took the initiative and I am not aware that utilities in southern Europe have assumed a similar role. It also depends on the demographics in an area. On a different perspective, it’s also about the infrastructures that are already in place in northern Europe. In southern Europe upgrades of public infrastructures like roads are still required so in many respects broadband is not at the highest possible priority. I am sure it will come along, if you have a vision, just not immediately, maybe in the next 4-5 years. Last and not least, you have to have some courage as a mayor or as a city council because it is not an easy task to deploy fiber. It’s a battle and like every battle you have to have courage.

Well, thank you very much Frans-Anton, it was my privilege to have you with me today and I look forward to seeing you in another occasion very soon.

Many thanks for the invitation to explore on the Amsterdam model in Greece and I hope to see you soon and collaborate in many other ways to promote open access models.

Related posts:

  1. An Interview with Stefanos Paschalides, General Manager of ArNET – Municipal Network of Argyroupolis
  2. An Interview with Marc Duchesne, Pau Broadband Country
  3. An Interview with Bas Boorsma, CUD – Amsterdam Director
  4. Interview with Kai Seim – Municipal Broadband in Germany
  5. Interview with Fransisco Joya (Citynet Spain)

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