From words to actions: towards a truly digital transformation of the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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At this time of professional and social upheaval, digital services have helped all of us to remain connected for work, education, entertainment and also with friends and family. Only because we were able to rely on resilient and efficient networks has this been possible: networks are the backbone of our digital life.

In the face of the current crisis, the European Commission is right to be developing a recovery plan based on the twin transition towards creating a greener and more digital society. Both aspects are essential to build a prosperous and sustainable European Union. I fully share President Von der Leyen’s ambition and the urgency she emphasised in her State of the Union Speech: “Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us. This is why we must move fast.”

We have no choice but to meet this challenge. To do so the EU will have to rely on state-of-the-art and secured networks.

Let’s now move from words to concrete actions.

First, telecom networks are constantly evolving to keep pace with citizens’ and businesses’ growing connectivity needs; traffic increases by 40% every year. This requires continuous investment in new network infrastructure, such as Fibre to the Home or 5G. Most of this investment comes from the private sector, complemented by public intervention in case of market failure. Despite industry efforts, the EU is lagging behind other regions, as confirmed by the latest report on 5G from the European Roundtable of Industrialists.

The EU must catch up, and fast. It’s the only way to ensure that the EU economy remains innovative and competitive. Among the most impactful tools at our disposal, developing voluntary network sharing agreements is a top priority: this will allow for faster, cheaper and greener network roll-out. Policymakers should express clear and decisive support for such agreements. They should also duly consider the impacts of any new regulatory measures on the financial capacity of operators, in order not to hamper their ability to invest. On the demand-side, subsidising end-users (especially in remote areas or those where the connection cost for consumers is very high) to connect their home to the fibre network as part of national recovery plans would represent a great opportunity to sustain and accelerate the digital transition.

Secondly, to ensure its digital sovereignty, the EU has to embrace new technological evolutions.

EU telecom vendors are between the main suppliers of 5G in the world. The know-how and the skills of our industry built over decades are the most valuable asset for the EU digital sovereignty. To stay competitive and relevant, it is absolutely vital for the whole European vendor ecosystem to embrace the next disruption in front of us: the virtualization and the disaggregation of telecom networks. Telecoms networks, historically based on specialized hardware, will become increasingly based on software running on standard appliances and cloud infrastructures. Through the O-RAN initiative, most Europeans operators support this long term trend that will reduce network roll-out costs and improve network resilience and flexibility. EU should encourage this transition by subsidizing R&D and promote the emergence of a European industrial ecosystem, relying on existing vendors while at the same time enabling new, including smaller players to enter the market (e.g. in software and chipset development).

Beyond telecom networks, attention should be focused on technologies that enable the growth of our data-driven economy. This includes building an EU-driven cloud and data services federation, based on Gaia-X, which we strongly support as a founding member. This initiative has now been fully embraced by the European Commission, several Member States and various companies. It will further strengthen trusted cloud solutions as well as data-powered innovations to support European companies (from all sizes and across all sectors) in their digital transformation journeys.

Thirdly, for digitalisation to succeed and build trust, it must go hand-in-hand with enhanced digital skills and cybersecurity. Working on a harmonised cybersecurity policy across the EU is essential, as fragmentation will only create additional risks. Furthermore, any future Commission initiative on cybersecurity should ensure that all actors in the value chain are held accountable for their own products, services, and actions. Finally, it is of utmost importance to increase training in digital skills. We have started to do so with several programs, notably led by Orange CyberDefense, but further EU-scale actions and initiatives are required.

Orange is fully committed to be an active partner to the EU institutions in their efforts to develop a greener, more inclusive and more digital European society.

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