Kroes’ future? ‘I’m not going to grow roses’


This article is part of our special report Enabling the Next Technology Revolution.

SPECIAL REPORT / European Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes aims at getting a green light for the establishment of a genuine EU single market for telecoms before the end of her mandate and does not rule out staying in business. “I’m not going to grow roses,” she told EURACTIV in an interview at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

As her mandate draws to a close, Kroes is determined to lay the foundations for a real telecoms common market before autumn, when the current European Commission will be replaced by a new executive.

Europe can indeed claim a common airspace market where airlines companies compete across the bloc, with lower tariffs for consumers. The energy market is far from completed, but is at an advanced stage. The same cannot be said for the telecoms market, where users are still forced to pay extra-fees for the same domestic mobile services when they cross a border within the EU. Hurdles for wholesale services or auctioning are even higher.

Kroes thinks that obstacles which have so far hampered progress may be overcome in the next few months. “The main thing to do is to implement the telecoms single market. Hopefully, it will be accepted by the relevant bodies before the end of the mandate,” she told EURACTIV.

She is aware that this may likely be the main challenge for the next EU commissioner in charge of the Digital Agenda. Even if progress is made on the negotiation table, “it would just be a start. Then we have to stimulate the implementation. And we also should take into account that we have to do quite a bit of pushing to national governments,” she said.

But this role will not necessarily fall in somebody else’s hands. Asked what are her plans for the future, she said: “There are still more than 250 days to go. I’m trying to be as active as I can,” said the Dutch commissioner, who was born in 1941, when the Second World War was still raging. She added with an ironic touch: “I’m not going to grow roses.”

Global deal on 5G “by the end of 2015”

Another issue that will keep Kroes busy in the last months of her mandate is the development of the fifth generation of mobile connectivity, the 5G, which features as a prominent topic at this year’s Mobile World Congress.

Speaking in Barcelona to the Commission’s major private partners for the development of 5G, Kroes said: “Let's find a global consensus on the scope of 5G, its main technological constituents, and the timetable for putting it in place. Let's work this out together. And let's work it out soon: by the end of 2015. So all our citizens can get the 5G boost as early as possible,” she said.

She confirmed the Commission's €700 million investment by 2020, but put a lower, although ambitious, figure on the private sector. “The telecoms industry responded, matching our investment by up to 5 times, with over €3 billion” for 5G development, she said.

The EU executive had been more optimistic in its previous estimations of industry involvement, setting the private sector’s financial engagement at “five-to-ten times” the level of Brussels’ €700 million investment.

Asked why Europe puts so much emphasis on 5G rather than completing the 3G and even the 2G networks where they are not fully functional, Kroes replied: “Developing the newest technology is needed for giving a competitive position to Europe. 2G and 3G will still be at stake, but we should be aware that missing the 5G opportunity would create a disadvantage to our economy and our competitiveness.”

Spying, the second oldest profession

Kroes’ remarks went beyond 5G and future challenges, as she was asked to comment on US spying activities during a press conference in Barcelona.

She dealt with the issue with a touch of irony, simultaneously avoiding confrontation over the German proposal for a European internet detached from the United States for security and privacy reasons.

“Spying is the second oldest profession. Sometimes [it] is even combined,” with the oldest of all professions, she told journalists, arguing that a better way to increase data protection was to make citizens more aware of the risks they face in sharing plenty of personal data online.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks about a European internet came just a few days after Kroes had presented the Commission's strategy on internet governance, which called for governments to prevent the balkanisation of the Web.

Consensus is gradually emerging among telecoms operators over a new set of standards around what is considered the fifth generation of mobile connections, so-called 5G, which should be operative from 2020.

The route to 5G started in the early ’80s with the first mobile communications standard, the Total Access Communication Systems (TACS), which supported the first mobile phones.

The ‘90s saw the spread of a European standard meant to become one of the most successful stories of the EU single market, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), which is still the most common standard for mobile telecommunications.

The Universal Terrestrial Mobile System (UTMS), better known as 3G, is gradually taking over the GSM, as smartphones replace cellphones in users’ pockets.

As the 3G reaches its maturity, the 4G, or Long Term Evolution (LTE), is seeing now its first commercial offers and promises to significantly step up the quality of mobile services, making for instance mobile TV a much simpler option for users than is the case now.

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