Commission concedes delay in 5G deployment across EU

The European Commission has admitted that there will be a delay on targets to launch 5G telecommunications networks across all EU member states by the end of 2020, owing to postponements in spectrum frequency auctions that have occurred as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

European Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager (L) and European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton (R) participate in a media conference on the Digital Decade package: high performance computing and connectivity, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 18 September 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER MATTHYS]

The European Commission has admitted that 5G telecommunications networks will not be launched across all EU member states by the end of 2020 as planned, owing to postponements in spectrum frequency auctions that have occurred as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking to reporters on Friday (18 September), Commission Vice-President for Digital Margrethe Vestager and the Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said the public health crisis had set back Europe’s rollout of next-generation telecommunications but called on member states to step up their 5G deployment programmes with haste.

“Obviously there’s going to be a delay,” Breton said, responding to a question from EURACTIV. “We’ve got about a four-month delay on what we had planned. That really ties in with the four months of lockdown that we’ve lived through.”

“Now, we are urging member states to continue moving forward as quickly as possible,” Breton added, also stressing that so far, only around 20% of the frequencies for 5G spectrum have been granted in the EU.

2016 5G Action Plan Targets

The Commission previously set targets as part of its 2016 5G Action Plan for Europe, with the aim of launching 5G services in all EU member states by the end of 2020 at the latest, which would be followed by a ‘rapid build-up’ to achieve uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas and along main transport paths by 2025.

And despite the delays that are now almost inevitable, Breton said that the Commission still hopes there is the possibility to meet the 2020 timeline, after the EU executive published a recommendation calling on nations across the bloc to boost investment in very high-capacity broadband connectivity infrastructure, including 5G.

“Member states should avoid or minimise any delays in allowing the use of 5G pioneer frequency bands due to the COVID-19 crisis,” the recommendation states.

However, these delays had been in the offing for several months. In May, Vestager urged EU telecoms ministers to “limit as much as possible” any delays to their 5G spectrum assignments, amid the current challenges to the industry brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

A number of countries including Spain, Austria, Portugal, Poland and the Czech Republic all had at one point been forced to postpone spectrum frequency auctions due to the pandemic.

This week: France and Greece

With the divergent approaches adopted by member states, there have also been fears that the landscape for 5G deployment across the EU could become fractured.

Just this week, 5G made headlines in France, where President Macron caused an uproar after he likened his political opponents who have adopted a cautious stance on 5G deployment to the ‘Amish’ – a traditionalist Christian community known for their aversion to modern forms of technology.

But elsewhere in the EU, 5G has been highlighted in a more positive light, and Greek Digital Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis pledged that 5G coverage would reach a large portion of the Greek population in 2021, and 94% of the country within six years.

In order to achieve a more uniform approach to 5G deployment, the Commission sought to encourage more private investment in the EU’s next-generation telecommunications markets, as part of Friday’s recommendation.

“We have to now make sure that deployment is carried out at harmonized speed,” Breton said. “We have to make sure as well that the investment is there. And in the recovery plans, I’m sure there’ll be different proposals made and we’ll look at those very closely.

“But we are not here to substitute private investment. We are there to encourage private investment as well, and also to collate good practices.”

The telecommunications industry welcomed the Commission’s announcement on Friday.

“These are boldest steps yet to get the European Commission’s 5G Action Plan back on track,” said Laszlo Toth, head of public policy in Europe for the GSMA, a global trade group for the mobile sector. “They target the tightest bottlenecks: best practices for spectrum auctions and faster site permits.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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