EU telecoms regulator warns US proposal on 5G would ‘end in disaster’

The EU is under pressure to make fast 5G internet networks available before the United States and Asian countries. [Pexels]

A proposal from the Trump administration to build public-funded 5G networks will “end in disaster”, the EU’s top telecoms regulator has warned, urging Europe to speed up plans for its own fast internet networks.

An official in the Trump administration recently floated a bombshell proposal to build government-funded networks for 5G within three years as a way to minimise security threats from China, the US news website Axios reported on Sunday (28 January).

Fast next generation 5G mobile networks are not yet commercially available, and the EU is racing against the US, China, Japan, South Korea and other countries to introduce the technology.

Axios also published a PowerPoint presentation from the US official that described the plan to “leap ahead of global competitors” and partner with “allies” to expand 5G in developing countries and shield them from Chinese tech giants like phone manufacturer Huawei.

Johannes Gungl, the chair of BEREC, the umbrella group of telecoms regulators from EU countries, told EURACTIV.com that the US plan is unrealistic. He predicted that it would likely lead to a price war if the government bankrolls a nationalised network and competes with another one funded by private telecoms operators.

Gungl insisted that the EU should move faster to make 5G networks available before other countries.

“Europe should definitely care about global competition,” he said on Monday (29 January).

His comments highlight the fierce competition raging between different countries as they race to make 5G available to consumers within the next few years.

Telecoms ministers snub Commission’s spectrum overhaul in 5G strategy

Telecoms ministers from EU countries agreed on a plan to set up fast 5G internet networks by 2025, five years after the European Commission’s original proposal, and snubbed a proposal to reform rules for selling off radio spectrum.

Gungl took on the rotating one-year chairmanship of BEREC at the beginning of this month. He also serves as Austria’s telecoms regulator.

His US counterpart, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai, announced on Monday that he opposes the plan for a nationalised 5G network, arguing that private telecoms companies should pay for infrastructure, not government.

Gungl has a similar goal for the EU, which he said should focus on creating a “positive climate for investment in 5G and make every effort to be at the forefront of 5G deployment”.

The European Commission wants 5G to be available by 2020, and has estimated that it will cost €56 billion to build the networks. Ministers from EU national governments agreed on their own goal in December: they want 5G up and running in at least one city in each member state by 2020, and plan to deploy the technology across the bloc by 2025.

The race to introduce 5G will be uphill for European telecoms firms. The EU previously lagged behind the US in making 4G connections available.

Fast 5G networks have become a catchphrase for the Commission, member states and telecoms firms, which have touted the technology as a way to support the growth of internet-connected devices and machines that process massive amounts of data.

Gungl said in an interview that he thinks 5G could become “the access technology in the future” connecting the majority of internet users.

Europe will have stronger net neutrality rules than the US, regulators say

EU telecoms regulators said yesterday (6 June) that a new net neutrality law would give Europe stronger internet traffic rules than the United States, where a year-old regulation is facing legal challenges.

Net neutrality

He also criticised the US FCC’s decision last month to repeal net neutrality rules, which prevent internet providers from slowing down, blocking or charging higher rates for certain traffic.

EU lawmakers approved net neutrality legislation in 2015.

Gungl called the US repeal of net neutrality a “step back” and said Europe’s legislation is more stable because it cannot be repealed by an agency decision like in the US.

The Commission will publish a report in spring 2019 assessing the effects that net neutrality has had across the EU, and could change the legislation based on those results. Gungl predicted the rules will pass that first major test.

“I’m quite sure that the principles will stay in place. There will be no overhaul of the whole regime, but maybe some minor adjustments. For instance when it comes to 5G maybe there is a little bit to fine tune on the rules,” he said.

BEREC is collecting evidence to analyse, as Gungl said, whether net neutrality is a “hurdle” for 5G. The group will send the Commission its findings by next year.

That report could open sore wounds for the telecoms industry: a group of operators signed a “5G manifesto” document in 2016 that warned against “restrictive” net neutrality rules that might threaten 5G.

Telecoms regulators fight back against Commission plan for new EU agency

A fresh fight is brewing over the European Commission’s plans to turn a group of national telecoms regulators into a full-blown EU agency, with several top watchdogs saying the move will compromise their independence and give Brussels too much power.

Low profile

Gungl took over as BEREC chair at a politically sensitive time. The Commission is pressuring member states and the European Parliament to finish legal negotiations over twin telecoms bills by June. One addresses BEREC’s legal status – the Commission wanted to turn the group into a full-blown EU agency, but member states, MEPs and BEREC have rejected that proposal.

Some telecoms firms criticised Gungl’s predecessor, the 2017 BEREC chair Sébastien Soriano, for allegedly overstepping the group’s watchdog role in negotiations last year and urging MEPs to support measures that the regulator body had backed.

Gungl wants to keep a lower profile.

“We had our proactive part some months ago when we proactively made statements and put in our opinions. Now it is more about being reactive,” he said.

But, Gungl added that if “something is going in the wrong direction from our perspective, maybe we could speak up again”.

He is concerned that some member states are pushing to strip national telecoms regulators of their powers and shift them to ministries.

“It can’t be really in the overall interest of the industry or the consumer to have anyone other than independent NRAs [national regulators] be in charge.

“When it comes to spectrum auctions or if we look at access regulation and at the promotion of competition. Many member states still have a stake in incumbents,” he said.

The French state owns a 23% stake in operator Orange. The Macron government has announced its plans to reduce those shares. Germany owns 14.5% of Deutsche Telekom, and the state-owned development bank KfW owns an additional 17.5%.

EU telecoms watchdog: 'We are independent and we bother powerful people'

Sébastien Soriano spoke to EURACTIV about what Yoda can teach us about EU telecoms law, accusations that he is lobbying to change draft rules, net neutrality and the likely new Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

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