EU seeks harmonized approach across all verticals to assert 5G leadership

Amid criticisms that the 5G process is excluding input from non-telecoms verticals (see separate article), the European Union has launched a consultation with a view to getting all verticals equally involved in 5G developments, rather than allowing this to be dominated by just the telecoms vertical. The EU has devised an online questionnaire, open until July 11, to seek the views of “any sector that perceives benefits from connectivity to improve its process, products or services”.

The aim is to identify opportunities for a coordinated introduction of 5G networks in Europe, and to assess elements of a ‘5G Action Plan’ for 2020 and beyond. The result should be a manifesto with a list of priority actions to enable 5G implementation, which will be presented to digital commissioner Günther Oettinger next month and will form part of the European Commission’s review of the EU telecoms framework this autumn.

Announcing the consultation exercise, Oettinger said Europe needed more “flexibility in identifying spectrum of European relevance”, especially as the US and Japan had already identified new 5G bands. “Europe needs to fast track procedure for this,” he added.

Topics covered in the questionnaire include the overall agenda and timing for 5G introduction in Europe; service introduction and new service types; 5G enablers such as standards, spectrum and investment. These topics reflect the EU’s official stance that 5G’s objective must go far beyond connectivity, and be about providing an interoperable global platform to enable network operators, vertical industries and the public sector to design new services.

One of the key enablers, it believes, will be harmonized spectrum policies. Andrus Ansip, the EC’s VP for the Digital Single Market, said last week that he “cannot stress enough how important it is to have coordinated EU-wide spectrum as we progress rapidly toward the age of 5G connectivity. Without mobile broadband we will not achieve the goals of the Digital Single Market. Coordinated spectrum is vital for a fully connected digital society and economy. It will help attract investment and to make the next 5G mobile communications generation a success.” He is urging rapid adoption of the EC’s proposals for 700 MHz harmonization, and for a deployment timetable that will ensure Europe does not fall behind the 2020 deadline for freeing up that band.

He acknowledged that other critical enablers included ways to “incentivise investments where the market cannot achieve this on its own”, and “setting an appropriate and stable regulatory environment and reducing divergences between regulatory practices”, while taking competition as the starting point.

Many of these issues were at the forefront of discussion at last week’s GSMA M360 conference in Brussels, Belgium. Telecoms chiefs and politicians repeatedly voiced concerns that Europe would lose the opportunity to be a 5G frontrunner, and to help create and direct standards as the region did in the GSM and 3G eras.

Alexander De Croo, deputy prime minister of Belgium, urged governments and regulators to change their traditional mindset and adopt more open approaches which would spark innovation and creative thinking – especially when it comes to spectrum. Belgium plans to open up spectrum purely for this purpose later this year. He said: “We have asked regulators to open up spectrum as a sandbox to test things out. In return, we ask that when you come to play in the sandbox, you involve our start-ups and our community and our academics.”

He was one of many speakers concerned that Europe was not taking a leadership role (though in a global industry, some of these arguments sounded somewhat inward-focused and parochial). He said: “Technology used to be created in the western world and then consumed globally, not any more.”

Simon Beresford-Wylie, CEO of UK infrastructure provider Arqiva, was even gloomier, saying during a panel debate: “The idea that Europe is marching to 5G leadership is a little on the delusional side.”

But Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, was more optimistic, saying Europe does have a strong opportunity to regain digital leadership, provided it works in a harmonized way.

“We have a unique opportunity to regain the industry leadership. With 5G and IoT around the corner that can work as true enablers and game changers for society,” he said. But he said the mobile industry was challenged in the “ability to scale across a continent with different regulatory and legal environments” and so the review of the EU telecoms framework would be critical – “a unique opportunity to reshape the regulatory landscape to better support the era of digital players, services and business models, underpinned by advanced mobile broadband connectivity.”

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