5G: To lead or not to lead

5G is a unique opportunity to develop a more coherent European approach to connectivity and digital infrastructure deployment.

Reading time: 3 min

That is the question.  The ongoing health crisis has brought a collective realization that best in class connectivity is a must to underpin the continuous function of our economies and societies.  Moreover, connectivity is now featured as the most fundamental building block of the forthcoming digital transformation.  With this potential at hand, we are witnessing a global race for connectivity leadership, particularly in 5G that is seen not just as the future of mobile technology but as a real game changer, enabling industrial transformations and innovative business models across multiple sectors through wireless broadband services provided at gigabit speeds.

For the EU this is part of a broader aspiration for technological sovereignty, reducing dependencies from foreign powers and building up our own digital capacities. And we have been fast in claiming leadership with Commissioner Breton stating that European companies hold 56% of 5G related patents, compared to 30% China and 10% the US.  The report just released by the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) suggests however otherwise, identifying a clear lag in the launch of 5G commercial services in Europe with more than half of the EU-27 yet-to-launch such services. It also signals that on the deployment of infrastructure, only ten 5G base stations per million capita have been deployed in 5G-active EU Member States, compared to one thousand five hundred base stations per million capita in South Korea.

3g, 4G, 5G

At Telefonica we are doing our part and we have announced coverage of 75% of the Spanish population with 5G by the end of 2020.  However, we believe leadership on this space is more a marathon than a sprint and should not be measured by which country is the first to bring 5G to the market, but by who is able to launch 5G based services in a sustainable way, with propositions that bring value to residential and business customers around a developed ecosystem.  For that to happen a number of pre-conditions are required ranging from a regulatory framework conducive to investment, to a competition policy approach that favours in-market consolidation and network sharing, to standards and use cases development or devices availability. I would like to concentrate on two of those pre-conditions, spectrum and trust.

Spectrum needs to be available at the right time, not long before or after needed. Quality in the allocation process should be favored over speed. We cannot repeat the mistakes made for 3G in year 2000 when spectrum was auctioned 3/4 years before commercial maturity and at really expensive prices.  Spectrum needs to be licensed at fair prices and at fair conditions and should be paid when made available to operators and not beforehand. If European governments continue to consider spectrum auctions mostly as an opportunity to raise money, then 5G will take much longer to become a reality. Since you can only spend a euro once, every euro spent in spectrum assignment is one euro less available for network deployment. And the already severely damaged investment capacity of telecom operators cannot be substantially drained with heavy burdens just for public authorities to finance other public obligations.


On the other hand, setting energy friendly standards and deployments and overcoming health & trust concerns, for a totally networked society is a must. Overreaction to potential health hazards posed by EMF emissions is an area of great concern for operators and we are ready to cooperate with Public Authorities on a joint effort to create confidence that the base stations that are being built comply with the limits set by the competent international organizations.

Luckily the 5G marathon is still on and we are not too late in Europe to reverse the worrying trends.  As President von der Leyen stated in her SOTEU speech NextGenerationEU is a unique opportunity to develop a more coherent European approach to connectivity and digital infrastructure deployment.  We are not sort of suggestions on how to make the most of this chance in a lifetime, please check our vision on a  Digital Deal to build back better our societies and economies to find out more!


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