This article is part of our special report Towards a gigabit society: from ambition to reality.
Digital connectivity is a precondition for achieving the EU digital agenda, but filling the existing digital gap will require a concerted approach among policymakers at the EU and national level and coordination with private providers.
In the Digital Compass 2030, the European Commission committed to making gigabit connection accessible for all EU citizens and 5G network available everywhere in the European Union.
Speaking at GIGAEurope’s EU Presidency event, Hugo Santos Mendes, Portugal’s deputy minister for communications, highlighted international connectivity as a key step for ensuring Europe’s digital sovereignty.
Mendes pointed to EllaLink, the recently inaugurated transatlantic marine cable connecting Europe to Latin America and Africa, as the type of infrastructural projects needed to make Europe a global data hub.
The new digital infrastructure is estimated to reduce the time for data transfers by 50%, boosting digital trade between Europe and the other two continents.
“In what concerns infrastructure such as submarine cables, the EU must provide a clear message that these investments are not merely national budgets, but essential tools for Europe to achieve its digital sovereignty,” Mendes said in its opening remarks.
Mendes highlighted four strategic areas where Europe should develop its international digital connections: the Atlantic region, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic to the Black Sea, the North Sea and the Artic. The establishment of these data gateway platforms should go hand in hand with the security and geopolitical agenda, he said.
On the internal front, there is still much work to be done to fill the connectivity gaps and achieve the objectives set in the Digital Compass 2030. The European Commission estimates that on digital connectivity alone, there is an investment gap of €42bn per year.
Rita Wezenbeek, director for connectivity at the European Commission, stressed that while several EU countries have committed a significant part of their recovery plans to digital infrastructure, that gap can only be filled with a combination of public and private investments.
For Erzsebet Fitori, head of EU affairs and relations at Vodafone Group, the COVID pandemic showed that digital connectivity is a lifeline. At the same time, she stressed the need to take stock of the current situation as “the EU is currently not in a leading position with regard to both gigabit and 5G networks, we only have 14% coverage of 5G networks.”
While Fitori considers that the Digital Decade targets are the right ambition for Europe, she urged policymakers to drive a “paradigm shift” at both the EU and national level, to leverage more targeted and pragmatic policy measures and financial tools as part of a holistic strategy for digital connectivity.
The Vodafone executive also pointed to the risk of a growing digital divide if the new generation of telecommunication technologies was not extended to rural regions. In scarcely populated areas, private providers do not have a business interest, hence the EU needs to review its state aid guidelines to better consider the digital targets.
To support EU countries, the European Commission issued the connectivity toolbox in September with a list of best practices for deploying telecommunications networks and for establishing efficient access to the 5G radio spectrum.
As part of this process, the member states are in the process of submitting a roadmap illustrating their plans for the 5G and broadband rollout.
Another EU initiative on digital connectivity is the European Electronic Communication Codes, which took effect on 31 December 2020. In February, the Commission announced the opening of an infringement procedure against 24 member states for failing to enact the new EU telecom rules.
Wezenbeek mentioned several reasons for this delay, from the pandemic to ongoing judicial proceedings. The EU executive is currently in dialogue with non-compliant countries, which need to grant the radio spectrum for 5G telecommunications, among other things.
At the same time, Robert Kolthek, vice president for regulation at Liberty Global, warned about the fragmented approach on broadband. For Kolthek, administrative burdens and regulatory differences across EU countries create barriers for private companies to invest in the deployment of digital networks.
“Above all, legal certainty is integral to ensuring continued innovation and investment. Simply put, over-regulation or market-making likely disincentivises investment, putting the European Commission’s Digital Decade connectivity goals at risk”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]