Ansip: Europe must switch immediately to 5G

Andrus Ansip [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Mobile World Congress: Europe rushes to keep pace on connectivity.

Europe must switch “immediately” to fast 5G mobile networks, EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip told EURACTIV in an interview.

Ansip said the EU trailed behind the United States and Asian countries in introducing 4G networks, and cannot afford to make the same mistake with 5G. EU member states committed to introducing the new mobile technology in major cities by 2020 and everywhere in the bloc by 2025.

The EU digital chief also played down differences between the EU and the United States’ approach to net neutrality. He will meet the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission this week, two months after the agency repealed its net neutrality rules.

Ansip is European Commission Vice-President in charge of digital single market policies. He spoke to EURACTIV before this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which starts on Monday (26 February).

The United States and Asian countries are moving fast to launch more tests of 5G. Is Europe lagging behind?

So-so. When talking about showcases, then yes. We saw some really good solutions from South Korea during the Olympic games. But we also have quite impressive showcases in Europe. For example, in my small Estonia, in Tallinn, also in Helsinki, I know that Telia together with Ericsson are working quite intensively to prepare the environment for 5G. Our companies providing those services are working very actively on 5G.

When talking about networks, it seems that in the United States they are investing more than our European companies are investing, and generally speaking into 5G. According to some sources, when we invest €1, Americans invest €2. That’s why in some areas we are not doing so well.

In the US, they have the [radio spectrum] frequencies needed for 5G already. Our goal is to reach this point in 2020. In the US, they practically skipped 3G. They jumped from 2G directly to 4G. When we invested into 3G, they were starting to think about 4G. So with 5G they have some advantages, but I don’t want to say that Europe is lagging behind. It’s also about our other telecom operators and our producers like Ericsson and Nokia.

Is Europe catching up now?

With LTE, with 4G, we caught up. It’s not a problem anymore. The slow adoption of 4G was because of slower spectrum release in Europe. This has to be the message to MEPs and member states. We lost time. Now we caught up, and they had some time to prepare for 5G. We have to switch immediately to 5G. No time for a reflection period, collecting funds or anything. Or battling with each other over whether you cooperate or not.

You want the next long-term EU budget to include dedicated funding for 5G. How much EU money should go towards that?

I don’t want to talk about concrete figures yet at this stage because we have projects, and of course we’d like to get much more money than EU taxpayers are ready to pay. We have to prioritise our needs. But I still believe we have to deal with our future, we have to invest in our future. We have to invest in digital, into 5G, artificial intelligence, high performance computing. Cybersecurity is extremely important.

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Some big European telecoms operators prefer the US’ more hands-off way of regulating. They argue that EU laws make it hard for them to invest and build faster networks. You will meet US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in Barcelona, who is responsible for repealing net neutrality. What’s your response to companies that tell you the US approach is better for attracting investment?

Some people will say that it’s because of the net neutrality rules we have in Europe that the level of investment here is lower than in the United States. But one of the reasons why they changed those open internet rules in the US was that they didn’t get enough investment. Those changes took place now in the US and we don’t have any fears that the open internet rules were an obstacle to investment.

It’s up to Americans to say what will happen now when they don’t have net neutrality rules in the US. But I don’t think blocking and throttling and pre-paid prioritisation will become the reality in the United States. The only real change I can see is that now it’s not so much about the FCC checking those principles. It will be about the FTC, it means this will be under competition rules and blocking and throttling will not be allowed anyway. I think we have the same aims in the United States and in Europe. But the way we would like to reach those goals is a little bit different. Net neutrality rules are in EU law and that means there is clarity and predictability for our operators.

For us, it’s much more important to go ahead with our code [the electronic communication code] and those negotiations. We have to cooperate more between member states, it’s a must. We have to coordinate our activities when talking about spectrum allocation auctions, duration of licenses, coverage issues. We have to find solutions for Europe. And then we can say that, yes, we can compete also with Americans. In the United States there is unlimited duration of licenses. The United States was able to provide frequencies for 5G sooner than we were. This makes sense.

Member states have rejected your proposal to require spectrum licences to last at least 25 years. Unlimited licences like in the US seem impossible in Europe. Is it realistic to think that EU countries could really auction off radio spectrum faster?

I hope so. We will protect our proposal on this. And we will also protect our proposal about the co-investment model. If somebody thinks that equal protection of our customers will be possible only when they do not have access to networks, then all of those customers will not be protected. That’s not a solution for us.

We set three connectivity goals. There is the gigabit connectivity goal for main social-economic drivers by 2025; 100 megabits per second in urban areas, rural areas, and every household by 2025; and then all urban areas and transport roads have to be covered by 5G. By 2025, we have to provide coverage of those services on a commercial basis. And at least one major city in each member state has to start with those 5G services by 2020.

To reach those aims, at least €500 billion will be needed in investment. If we continue on the basis of the existing rules, there will be an investment gap of €155 billion. The message is clear. To reach those aims we have to change our rules. If in some countries, they think it will be possible to somehow not cooperate, not harmonise those rules across the European Union. I think that’s a huge mistake. Thinking about 5G just in one town or one country is not a solution. We have to have a harmonised approach across the EU. For that, this code is definitely needed.

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It seems like the Commission might be getting ready to give in to the European Parliament’s demands to lower the price of intra-EU calls between member states. MEPs added that into the negotiations on the code. You previously said you oppose price regulation of intra-EU calls. Have you changed your mind?

I just mentioned our needs of around €500 billion. I’m pretty disappointed that we mixed these two questions. There’s one really big question about our future and €500 billion. And another one where we’re dealing with our past. This question is worth 100 times less. I don’t want to say that we don’t have to deal with those issues. But why did they put those issues together? I’m not able to understand. It’s so easy to talk about intra-EU calls, about our past. Because as we know this market is a rapidly decreasing market. This market decreased between 2010 and 2015 by 40% in the UK, in Sweden by 60% and in Spain by 74%. Our future is up to data and people know. A lot of people use Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger. It makes sense, it’s better.

If we start with tough regulations, we will punish those who invested quite a lot in innovative solutions. And we will push people to use old-fashioned technologies. There was a real need to abolish roaming surcharges because there were no other options. When talking about intra-EU calls, there are other options. There is competition between Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and traditional calls.

Does that mean you won’t accept an EU regulation to lower the price of intra-EU calls?

If there’s a need to regulate, why do we have to do it together with this really big challenge about our future and connectivity? We can easily kill those negotiations by dealing with our past. Timing and these tactics are unacceptable for me. I’m not happy. I don’t want to say there’s no sense to deal with those issues at all. But to mix and create a package of really important issues and a proposal dealing with a disappearing market is not the best approach.

There’s no analysis of what will happen with operators. Maybe it’s too much for them first to face the abolishing of roaming surcharges and secondly another hit.

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