Investment in ‘first class connectivity infrastructure’ a priority, Commission says

A special pipe system for the laying of fiber optic cables. [EPA/JENS BUETTNER]

This article is part of our special report Europe’s gigabit future.

The cable industry’s ambitions of ubiquitous gigabit connectivity have long been hindered by a number of obstacles, including patchy coverage and consumer trust issues. Carlota Reyners Fontana explains what the EU Commission is doing to improve the bloc’s broadband gaps.

Carlota Reyners Fontana is the Head of Unit responsible for Investment in High-Capacity Networks, in the European Commission’s DG Connect.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Samuel Stolton.

The European Court of Auditors have urged shelving EU targets of  providing all Europeans with broadband connection of over 30Mbps by 2020 because of concerns over rural coverage. What is the Commission doing to ensure that broadband connectivity is available to those who live in more rural areas of the bloc?

The European Court of Auditors’ Special Report identified a number of challenges that EU countries still need to overcome in order to roll out the broadband infrastructures necessary to support the digital transformation of society and economy, as well as reduce the urban-rural digital divide.

The Commission continues to be aware of the importance of extending Europe’s broadband capacities. €6 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds were allocated to broadband for the 2014-2020 period. Additional support has come from the European Fund for Strategic Investments, the new Connecting Europe Broadband Fund, as well as the WIFI4EU initiative.

For the next budgetary period of 2021-2027, the Commission has proposed that EU support for very high speed connectivity continues, through instruments such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, the digital part of the renewed Connecting Europe Facility, and the InvestEU programme.

On the specific issue of the urban-rural divide, our Rural Action Plan focuses on the challenges of rural broadband, not least through the exchange of best practices through the Broadband Competence Offices network, targeted Member State missions, closer monitoring of broadband spending from the European Structural and Investment Funds, and updated guidelines on broadband investment.

A recent case study in the impact better broadband coverage can have in rural areas of Europe is in the UNESCO listed Danish island of Mandø. As a winner of the European Broadband Awards, the area benefited from the installation of high capacity network installation. Can you talk a bit about how the area, not generally considered attractive for commercial broadband investments, benefited from the project?

The project provided a high capacity network to the inhabitants of a very small island (110 houses) located in the UNESCO world heritage area of the Wadden Sea, Denmark. It was driven by the efforts of local community volunteers who worked without support from the Danish broadband state aid scheme. They managed to get almost all houses on the island connected to a broadband network. This new connectivity infrastructure has also helped the island attract more tourists.

What obstacles are there in delivering fibre connections to these rural areas and how can these challenges be mitigated?

Bringing fibre infrastructure to households in rural areas is very expensive, and often there is not enough return for investment. The EU is financing such projects through structural funds and encourages private investment (with the recent reform of the regulatory framework that resulted in a new European Electronic Communications Code), to complement European and national funds.

A number of local initiatives finance the deployment of fibre by using local means, and our Broadband Awards have over the years recognised a number of such initiatives. The Cost Reduction Directive also includes a series of measures to reduce the costs associated with broadband deployment.

Bridging the EU's broadband divides: The importance of trust and security

The EU has long been plighted by patchy broadband coverage, so much so that previous Commission targets set out for 2020 were put to bed last year by the European Court of Auditors. But could 2019 prove to be a tipping point in the bloc’s connectivity potentials?

In terms of finding solutions to the EU’s broadband coverage challenge across rural areas, what type of relationship do you envisage in the future between fixed and mobile networks? Is convergence the way to go?

In the coming years, 5G is expected to be the enabler for all digital services by providing connectivity to people, wherever they are, in both urban and rural areas. Fixed-line and wireless services will increasingly become substitutes for each other from a user’s point of view. At the same time, the use of fibre infrastructures for 5G coverage can also make the extension of broadband coverage to local rural households that would not be connected otherwise more interesting.

The FTTH Council recently published research on the EU’s top countries in fibre broadband to the home. There is a significant disparity between those at the top of the list, and those towards the bottom. Why is this the case?

It is true that Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) – the main technology together with advanced cable networks supporting ultrafast broadband – is developing at a different pace in different EU countries.

This can be for many different reasons, ranging from the geographical distribution of a country’s population to the quality of the existing legacy networks, availability of physical infrastructure, urban planning rules, market structure, market regulation choices, levels of broadband take-up and the availability in a country of online services that are reliant on higher speeds.

More broadly, a country’s socio-economic situation and the way in which it implements public support schemes can also be relevant. In general, FTTP remains still largely an urban technology led by commercial investment. However, in countries such as Portugal, Latvia and Denmark more than 50% of rural homes already have access to it.

In an age in which trust in digital structure is being tested, how important is it that broadband providers recognise the importance of cyber-security in their working methods? How is the Commission working alongside industry to ensure that trust in network infrastructure is taken seriously?

The Commission takes this issue very seriously and is continuing its work to increase cybersecurity in the EU. This is why we have always endeavoured to ensure that not only existing networks but also next generation networks will provide a high level of cybersecurity across the EU.

Under current EU rules, telecoms operators are already subject to clear obligations, defined by national authorities, to ensure the security of their networks. In addition, the EU now has a range of legal instruments, such as the NIS Directive, the EU Cybersecurity Act, and the new telecoms rules, to reinforce cooperation against cyber-attacks and enable the EU to act collectively in protecting its economy and society.

In this vein, are self-regulatory measures, such as the certification framework as part of the recently adopted Cybersecurity Act, sufficient?

The recently adopted Cybersecurity Act creates an EU cybersecurity certification framework for ICT products and services. The cybersecurity certification framework is for now voluntary but it cannot be considered as a self-regulatory measure. It is about creating certificates.

Today in the EU a number of different cybersecurity certification schemes for ICT products exist. With the EU Cybersecurity Act we are creating a common framework for EU-wide valid cybersecurity certificate schemes: a comprehensive set of rules, technical requirements, standards and procedures to agree each scheme.

Each scheme will be based on agreement at EU level for the evaluation of the security properties of a specific ICT-based product or service. This certificate will attest that ICT products and services that have been certified in accordance with such a scheme comply with specified cybersecurity requirements. ENISA, the EU Agency for Cybersecurity, will put in place and implement this certification process. The Commission, cybersecurity experts and national cybersecurity authorities have also an important role to play in this process.

The resulting certificate will be recognised in all EU countries, making it easier for businesses to trade across borders and for purchasers to understand the security features of the product or service.

UK cyber boss downplays threat of Five Eyes security rift over Huawei

The head of Britain’s cyber centre said governments in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance had not always been aligned over Huawei, downplaying any threat of a rift as the UK prepares to give the Chinese company access to 5G networks.

When we talk about bridging the Broadband divide in Europe and moving towards a culture of ubiquitous connectivity, how far-reaching could the future applications of broadband technology be?

In addition to what I mentioned earlier, 5G could also help to address the current broadband divide directly. For example, the possibility of terminating a fibre connection with 5G wireless fibre, allowing fixed wireless access at gigabit or quasi-gigabit speeds, could potentially offer a cost-efficient solution for very sparsely populated rural areas in particular.

5G will be one of the key building blocks of our digital economy and society in the next decade. The future infrastructure will help to create wide range of applications and benefit many sectors, from eHealth services to energy management and water quality control to Connected Automated Mobility.

From government initiatives and health projects that take advantage of high-speed and capacity networks, how realistic is it for citizens to envisage a future that is seamlessly connected? What needs to happen for this future to be realised?

Realising this vision involves investing in first class connectivity infrastructure as well as in education and skills, creating a business and regulatory environment where digital services can thrive.

Yet without stimulating and supporting network investments, the digital transformation is not possible. With this in mind, we have proposed that the digital strand of the Connecting Europe Facility post-2020 focuses on strategic infrastructure projects, such as gigabit connectivity to educational and medical centres and their surrounding areas, 5G connectivity along major transport paths, and very high quality connectivity for local communities. No European should be deprived of the benefits of such projects.

What’s the most effective way for EU citizens to realise the benefits of future high-capacity and high-speed networks? Do you think there is a knowledge gap in this field, across certain parts of Europe?

Europe must seize the countless opportunities offered by the digital transformation. Investing in future-proof infrastructure is a key part of that, but we also need to ensure that citizens, wherever they live and whatever their background, have the skills they need to thrive in the digital future.

With this in mind, the Commission has set up the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, which brings together EU countries, companies, social partners, non-profit organisations and education providers who are committing to help people acquire digital skills.

The Coalition’s actions target citizens in general, the labour force, and ICT specialists, as well as modernising education, with the goal of providing all students and all teachers with the right tools and materials to upgrade their skills. The pilot Digital Opportunity traineeship programme also permits up to 6,000 students to acquire key knowledge and capabilities.

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