Vestager urges EU member states not to backtrack on 5G

The European Commission’s Vice-President for Digital, Margrethe Vestager, has 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.

The news comes as the rollout of 5G mobile networks continues to face a number of setbacks in the EU, with a number of countries including Spain, Austria, Portugal, Poland and the Czech Republic all having pushed back spectrum frequency auctions.

Speaking to EU telecommunications ministers in a private video conference meeting on Tuesday (5 May), Vestager said that while she understood the reasons for the delays in 5G spectrum assignments, member states should “keep up the pace” as a means of meeting current timeframe objectives, an EU source informed EURACTIV.

Current EU goals in the field of next-generation telecommunications include a launch of 5G services in all EU member states by the end of 2020 at the latest, as well as a ‘rapid build-up’ that will ensure “uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas and along main transport paths by 2025,” as outlined in the 2016 5G Action Plan for Europe.

Vestager’s comments come following a leak recently obtained by EURACTIV in which the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU had called on the Commission to issue a revised Action Plan for 5G and 6G mobile telecommunications as a means to bolster the bloc’s connectivity.

However, the executive had already outlined plans for an updated Action Plan on 5G and 6G in their February Digital Strategy communication.

Croatian Presidency pushes for new Commission 5G and 6G action plan

The European Commission is under pressure to propose a revised Action Plan for 5G and 6G mobile telecommunications as a means to bolster the bloc’s connectivity, according to a draft text from the Croatian Presidency of the EU seen by EURACTIV.

Review for state aid broadband networks

Elsewhere in telecommunications, EURACTIV has learnt that the European Commission will launch a review of its state aid policy with regards to the public financing of broadband networks across EU member states.

Vestager is said to have told ministers on Tuesday that the guidelines for the public financing of broadband infrastructure that were developed in 2013 need to be updated in the context of the current pandemic.

The executive currently applies the 2013 Broadband Guidelines when deciding on staid aid financing of broadband networks. The guidelines apply strict conditions to the public funding of broadband networks even in urban areas, in order to foster a competition-friendly environment. However, the rules do also make room for public investment where private initiatives do no suffice.

EU sources informed EURACTIV on Tuesday evening that the Commission is currently preparing the groundwork for a public consultation and a study on the guidelines, which could result in a relaxing of the measures, allowing for more pubic investment into high capacity networks.

Moreover, the Commission’s digital strategy communication also notes the importance of updating the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive, which aims to make broadband network deployment more cost-efficient.

COVID-19 apps

Meanwhile, telecoms ministers reached “broad agreement” for a coordinated approach on coronavirus contact tracing applications on Tuesday, although the French had adopted their own approach of a centralised model of data storage as part of the operation of such apps.

The UK has also opted for similar technical standards in the development of their own app.

The European Commission, however, believes that a decentralised approach is more privacy-preserving and the European Data Protection Board, the umbrella organisation which oversees the operations of national data protection authorities, believes that a decentralised model is more in line with EU data protection law.

However, the French junior minister for Digital, Cédric O, who attended the video conference meeting on Tuesday, announced earlier on BFM TV that trials of his country’s ‘StopCovid’ app would take place next week, with a view to being rolled out nationally on 2 June, pending a debate and vote in Parliament.

Despite the technical diversions taken by the French and UK, who embarked on the first testing phase of their new application yesterday, a source informed EURACTIV that telecoms ministers highlighted the importance of ‘interoperability’ with the different systems.

In this vein, ministers also noted the capacity of coronavirus contact tracing apps to potentially play a part in lowering border restrictions enforced during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The ministers came to an understanding that the contact tracing apps would have high importance for the gradual relaxation of various national measures, including opening of borders,” a readout of the meeting from the Croatian Presidency of the EU Council said.

The position of telecoms ministers in this regard comes after EU interior ministers recently noted the importance of coordinating the use of such contact tracing apps, because they “could contribute to easing or abolishing internal border checks and [the] potential lifting of entry restrictions on the external Union borders.”

COVID-19 apps could help abolish virus restrictions, EU ministers say

EU interior ministers have hailed the potential of contact tracing technologies to curb internal border checks and travel restrictions related to the current public health pandemic. But a dispute between member states over the finer details could limit their effectiveness.

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