EU must move quickly to benefit from opportunities offered by global digital transformation

Written by Roberto Viola on 29 June 2016 in Opinion

The right legislative environment can promote investment in high-performing, high-speed, secure and affordable digital networks, argues Roberto Viola.

Roberto Viola | Photo credit: European Commission audiovisual

Over the past decade, a significant part of our lives has moved into the digital domain.

Education, building a career, paying taxes, buying a book, watching a movie, doing everyday banking and even calling a taxi has become the digital norm.

This trend is set to continue and will touch more and more aspects of our everyday lives. Digital technologies make products smarter and transform traditional manufacturing industries into digitally driven ones.


The digital transformation offers many opportunities since digital markets are global. However, timing matters if we are not to miss these opportunities.

Just like in the early days of the transport revolution, roads improved when more and improved vehicles became available. At present, the traffic on our digital highways is expanding at an astonishing rate.

Yet, our digital highways are mostly built around urban centres. Smart devices, smart cities, smart factories and digital government services all rely on high-quality connectivity.

Does anyone think that a second-class digital side-road would be sufficient for new and fast services that depend on secure and trustworthy connectivity? Digital highways need to be broad enough to carry our gigabit society and economy.

If carefully designed, the right legislative environment can promote investment in high-performing, high-speed, secure and affordable digital networks.

The EU telecoms framework was instrumental in bringing the benefits of competition to both individual users and the telecom sector as a whole. However, a lot has changed since it was conceived back in 2002 with voice services in mind.

With the digital revolution, investment in modern digital infrastructure, that has the reach of voice networks, is a big challenge.

I hear some voices opposing competition and investment. This is a false dichotomy as our telecoms framework is, and will continue to be, based on competition law principles. None of the ideas flagged during a recent public consultation would work without competition.

However, there will be no competition for advanced connectivity services in places with zero high capacity networks. I am convinced that we need to address such situations if we are serious about the digital single market.

A society with a deep digital divide is not an option - just because people live outside urban centres, shouldn’t mean they are deprived of public services like eHealth or online education or the chance to set up a small business online.

The comprehensive reform of the EU regulatory framework should provide the necessary tools to encourage operators to roll out networks in areas where prevailing economic conditions, population density or digital literacy make investment less attractive.

We will enhance the way scarce resources like spectrum and numbering are managed in order to take full advantage of the arrival of 5G and the Internet of Things. The challenge is how to cover the most inaccessible areas and achieve public-interest objectives.

If we are serious about the digital single market and efficient spectrum use, we need a common European approach to those aspects of spectrum management which are key to investment

Providers of equipment, devices and services, as well as users, all need networks to keep up with the exploding demand for digital data. Quick and better-coordinated assignment of 4G and 5G spectrum bands will help here.

Simplification and streamlining is also on the agenda – especially for regulation of services where technologies, markets and horizontal legislation have evolved over the past years. The need for sector-specific regulation will have to be assessed carefully.

The equivalent service-equivalent rule principle should apply, but not everything that looks similar from the outset qualifies as being equivalent. Services which rely on the use of public resources will also, in the future, have to meet conditions to be able to use those resources.

Finally, the revised framework should aim at delivering an internal market in terms of consistent regulation and a governance structure which ensures effective implementation. An efficient system with strong and independent national regulators with adequate powers and a streamlined governance system at EU level are all necessary to deal with market trends, new services and their integration.

Regulatory bodies, the way they interact and the entire institutional set-up must be efficient and work towards connectivity for the benefit of all.

About the author

Roberto Viola is Director General of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT

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