The EU’s 5G strategy is to come under the scrutiny of European auditors, as the clock ticks down on end-of-the-year deadlines for member states to tie up frequency allocations for next-generation telecommunications networks.
The European Court of Auditors (ECA) announced on Tuesday (8 December) that they will probe a series of areas related to the bloc’s 5G deployment plans, including the Commission’s support for EU nations and the consideration of member states of security concerns.
Annemie Turtelboom, the ECA member leading the audit, said the investigation will seek to hold the EU to account with regards to commitments to ensure that 5G technologies are “implemented in a fast, secure and concerted way.”
The final review, expected to take 12 months for auditors to complete, will cover action taken since the EU published its 5G Action Plan in 2016, sampling activity across four member states in particular including Finland, Germany Poland, and Spain.
EU Targets: 5G Action Plan and Electronic Communications Code
In the EU’s 2016 5G Action Plan, nations committed to a number of targets, including the launch of 5G services in all member states in at least one major city by the end of 2020.
Moreover, timeframes set out in the 2018 Electronic Communications Code legally bind member states to ensure the availability of 5G radio spectrum before the end of this year.
However, both upcoming targets appear to be in peril, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, concerns over the security of next-generation telecommunications networks, and a heated misinformation campaign that has sought to spread falsities about 5G.
EU auditors say that as of October this year, 5G – in some capacity- has only been deployed in 17 EU countries, as well as the United Kingdom.
As of mid-November, data from the EU’s 5G Observatory shows that countries including Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, and Slovenia have yet to formally and fully assign any of the frequencies across the 700 MHz, 3.6 GHz, and 26 GHz bands required for 5G deployment.
Commission presses member states
The Commission, for its part, laments the fact that its 5G ambitions have been beset by delays.
Speaking at a recent online event, Anthony Whelan, digital policy adviser to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, spoke of the executive’s frustration at the likely failure of certain member states to comply with binding timeframes.
“Delays in this respect create uncertainty for businesses that have to make decisions on the rollout and it creates uncertainty for consumers because a certain number of provisions were adopted in their interest,” Whelan said.
“Obviously we are disappointed when we hear or member states that are not able or have not, as it were, made themselves able to reach deadlines for 5G core bands.”
In addition, September saw the EU executive adopt a recommendation imploring member states to boost investment in very high-capacity broadband connectivity infrastructure, including 5G.
In the security space, the Commission unveiled in January its 5G Toolbox, in which EU nations were tasked with assessing the risk profile of telecom providers, with a view to applying restrictions for those vendors considered to be high-risk.
A progress report on the plans in July pressed member states to make ‘urgent progress’ on mitigating the risks to 5G telecommunications networks posed by certain high-risk suppliers.
In one recent example of security concerns that have a direct impact on 5G spectrum auctions, Sweden has had to sideline auctions for its 3.4-3.6 GHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz bands, after telecoms regulators PTS prohibited the use of equipment from Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE by operators for the country’s 5G rollout.
Huawei sought to reassure the Swedes earlier this week, with Kenneth Fredriksen, the company’s executive vice-president for Central East Europe and Nordic Region, telling Reuters that the firm is “willing to meet extraordinary requirements” for 5G security in the country.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]