5G deployment in Europe is at a crossroad – despite robust investments and technological developments, the EU is facing a substantial “5G gap,” due to a lack of consistent deployment across member states. How can Europe reconcile leading the global 5G race, with the challenges resulting from inequalities of deployment within the bloc? This was one of the key questions debated at Politico’s “Mind the 5G Gap” event, in Brussels on 24 September.
Overcoming Deployment Obstacles
In his opening address, Chief Technology Officer of Ericsson, Erik Ekudden, compared global 5G deployment efforts. South Korea began the roll out in spring and already has over 3 million 5G subscribers, with coverage expected to reach 93% of the population by the end of the year. Switzerland started rolling out 5G in April, with plans to cover 90% of the population by the end of the year, focusing largely on commercial 5G services. In the US, efforts have been concentrated on the 5G consumer experience with mobile devices and include plans to utilise all spectrum assets – high and low frequency bands, which will enable the most out of 5G.
For Europe to compete on this global scale, EU policy makers must incentivise 5G deployment through the introduction of facilitatory regulation and industrial policy for B2B, to stimulate investments. Harmonising radio frequency exposure, reducing permission times across particular states, ensuring widespread spectrum availability across Europe and by issuing long term licenses – of 20-25 year terms – will help to remove barriers to 5G deployment.
5G is an essential tool for both the economy and society, not just in the context of telecommunications. It will provide necessary benefits required to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), achieve zero emissions and reduce road accidents. Peter Stuckmann, Head of Unit, Future Connectivity Systems, for the European Commission emphasised the importance of making the new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) work for 5G, which is key to enabling net neutrality, virtualised services, automated driving and network sharing. He also highlighted the importance of unlocking industrial policy in partnership with the private sector.
Telcos to Take Pole Position
The focus of the panel turned to the 5G interests of mobile operators. Catherine Bohill, Director Spectrum Strategy at Telefonica referred to spectrum assignment policy as “the magic pill” with regards to improved 5G deployment. The high auction prices of spectrum in some countries not only delay roll out, but risk limiting network investment, including investment in rural coverage. Moreover, as only minority member states have assigned spectrum for 5G, it is crucial to expedite spectrum policy on standardisation and licensing in order to avoid deployment gaps. Bohill advocated for spectrum to be allocated to telecommunication operators, based on investment commitments. She stated that operators are best placed to deliver service due to economies of scale.
Looking Beyond Telecommunications
The interests of non-telecommunications industries were also featured among discussions, particularly their role in closing the 5G gap. It was suggested that spectrum should also be made available to industry players, beyond telecommunications. The combination of spectrum and vertical industries, however, can be complicated, demonstrated by Sébastien Soriano, President of the French telecoms regulator ARCEP. France experimented with opening frequencies for trials with vertical industry players from the top 50 organisations in France. The result? There was no interest from companies beyond the telecommunications sector. He suggested that a more tailor-made approach is required for the telecommunications industry to facilitate their services for B2B. Verticals, however, must discipline their tendency to control their networks on their own. Consequently, France granted spectrum to telecommunication operators, on the condition that telecommunication companies commit to sharing information and answering reasonable requests from vertical industries. The aim of this agreement is to foster trust between the verticals and operators to solve problems collectively, as and when they arise.
As the event drew to an end, it had become apparent that the next Commission will likely face a substantial 5G gap. The EU must develop strategies for each vertical industry – such as healthcare, agriculture, transport and urban planning – to drive productivity growth at an industry level. This will require partnering with technology vendors that are developing core Industry 4.0 technologies, including IoT, drones, AI and cloud, while developing standards and industry applications that can facilitate global innovation.