Play in digital premier league? Europe must reform spectrum policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Negotiators on a major EU telecoms bill want to introduce fast 5G networks by 2025. But they cannot agree on how to coordinate the radio spectrum needed to support faster internet connections. [Ervins Strauhmanis/Flickr]

The next generation of connected devices will change our lives. But the high-speed, reliable mobile connectivity they need requires collaboration across the EU and long-term regulatory certainty, writes Afke Schaart.

Afke Schaart is vice-president for Europe at GSMA, the international trade body representing mobile operators.

The digital era is full of promises. Imagine a world where fridges warn you when the milk is running low, robots on factory floors self-repair, or sensors in your elderly relative’s home alert you when they have a fall. With the advent of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), such sci-fi scenarios could soon be part of our daily reality. But this will only be possible with the roll-out of state-of-the-art mobile connectivity.

Currently, the European Commission’s proposal for a European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) is making its way through the European Parliament and National Governments. Within this proposal, the issue of spectrum management is crucial, and will define what future 5G connectivity across the continent will look like.

Mobile connectivity – including 5G – depends on access to the spectrum of radio communication frequencies – the invisible part of light around us – to transmit information between devices, just as radio stations use parts of the spectrum to broadcast music while we are stuck in traffic. Unfortunately, spectrum is a finite resource and  more cannot simply be conjured out of thin air.

As new mobile devices and technologies emerge, the rising demand for high-speed connectivity can only be met by reallocating existing or underused frequencies and managing spectrum more efficiently. When some frequencies are not used efficiently, despite strains on networks elsewhere, we are wasting an opportunity to grow the digital economy.

We urgently need to create the right incentives to support the huge investment in infrastructure required to enable the development of 5G, to meet the exponentially increasing consumer data demand and to support emerging mobile-based services. This will benefit consumers, business and the economy, by ensuring that no matter how much data is sent – whether it’s working on a shared document on the go, or streaming high definition video while waiting for your train – the network can cope without disrupting your user experience or your business.

But telecoms investment is a long game, with operators needing to spend considerable amounts up front for a payoff that comes many years or even decades after the investment is made. A stable, predictable and modern regulatory framework, particularly around the issue of spectrum management, is needed to incentivise operators to invest.

One of the key elements that would make the next regulatory framework in Europe future-proof and create a ripe environment for investment would be to ensure greater certainty and predictability over the rights and conditions the industry has over this critical resource. Having a fair and neutral spectrum authorisation regime, be it licensed, unlicensed or a form of sharing is another way to give freedom to the industry to find the best and most innovative ways to deliver new 5G services. Finally, sharing of best practices and greater consistency among EU countries over awards and spectrum policy more broadly is where Europe can shine, demonstrating vision and unity in diversity.

5G won’t be rolled out overnight, and now is the time to be thinking about where we want to be within a generation. The EU has an opportunity to foster a more inclusive digital society, by coordinating spectrum policy in Europe and putting an end to the current patchwork of regulation.

Without this level of collaboration among EU countries and without support for an ambitious spectrum policy reform within the proposed European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), the benefits of growth, innovation and digital leadership will not come from Europe. The European legislators must act now to ensure that everyone can reap the benefits of a truly digital and connected European society.

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