5G: An essential infrastructure

This pandemic revealed just how crucial the telecommunications sector is to society; it could yet play an even bigger role realising Europe’s vision of a greener, digital future. Jon Benton and Ana Gallego report on a recent webinar on the future of European telecoms.
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By Jon Benton and Ana Gallego

Jon Benton, Content Editor, and Ana Gallego, Junior Reporter, at The Parliament Magazine.

01 Mar 2021

As COVID-19 took hold early in 2020, only a few guessed that one of the biggest consequences would be the normalisation of home working – made possible through the power of telecommunications. By adapting its infrastructure, technologies and platforms the industry made the transition to remote working as smooth as possible.

Another consequence was that more people were using the internet for more things, most of the time. Video conferencing and streaming exploded – needing faster and more reliable internet connections and more capacity for more devices.

A Europe fit for the digital age

In October 2020, as part of the von der Leyen Commission’s goal of making Europe ‘fit for the digital age’, the EU committed around €150 billion to digital investment – including rolling out secure 5G infrastructures.

A recent Centre on Regulation in Europe (CERRE) webinar explored how telecom and digital strategies, public policies and regulations could contribute to the EU’s recovery and autonomy ambitions. And it asked industry leaders how EU investment could be best used to accomplish Europe’s digital transition.

Host and CERRE Director General Bruno Liebhaberg was joined by José María Álvarez-Pallete López, Telefónica Chairman and CEO, Vodafone CEO Nick Read, as well as Qualcomm’s CEO-elect and President, Cristiano Amon – who has been with Qualcomm since 1995, as President since 2018, and will replace CEO Steve Mollenkopf in the coming year.

Clockwise from top right: Cristiano Amon (Qualcomm CEO-elect and President), Nick Read (Vodafone CEO), José María Álvarez-Pallete López (Telefónica Chairman and CEO) and Bruno Liebhaberg (CERRE Director General).

 

Overnight digital demand

Beginning with the pandemic response. Nick Read said the sector had “really stepped up.” It had made sure hospitals could stay connected, adapted education sites so children could study at home, and supported small businesses with flexible payment terms and free digital support.

José María Álvarez-Pallete López added that the biggest success was meeting demand. “The demand we were expecting over the next two years – 50-60 percent growth – basically happened overnight,” he said. Society’s use of new tools to support things like working from home “has fast-forwarded between three and five years.” That challenges the industry to plan for similar pace when rolling out infrastructure for new technologies.

“Developing a new generation of technology usually takes about ten years (…) We saw those years realised in about a quarter.” Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm CEO-elect and President

“Developing a new generation of technology usually takes about ten years,” agreed Cristiano Amon. “We saw those years realised in about a quarter.” The biggest recent example was video conferencing. “Now if you make a phone call, it doesn’t feel as good as if you were in a video meeting,” he said.

The panel praised Europe’s telecoms industry for catching up with global rivals even while meeting the demands of the pandemic. But the pressure doesn’t stop. The EU could soon accelerate 5G roll-out using Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN) – an approach recently endorsed by Vodafone, Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom and Orange.

Open RAN involves hardware and software from different vendors running over open and interoperable network interfaces. Amon said it was a “necessity” for the switch to standalone 5G networks, and could “provide the scale for the industry to allow innovation between different companies and let operators participate in the enterprise sector as well.”

He also explained that Europe’s critical 5G infrastructure capabilities have “broader implications for society (…) There needs to be this understanding that if a country doesn’t have critical infrastructure, the impact is way broader than telecommunications.”

Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm CEO-elect and President

 

The power of digitising the economy

The sector is not only cutting its own carbon footprint but also society’s, the panel agreed.

“I think our industry has done so much to reduce energy consumption and it’s something we don’t get credit for,” said Cristiano Amon. Devices like smartphones carry out many tasks and replace several devices at once, for example. Using this example, he argued that 5G could bring about greater emissions reductions.

“As you apply 5G technology to enterprises, we predict that transportation, manufacturing and agriculture digital transformations will reduce CO2 emissions,” said Amon. “What this industry can do is really incredible – through the power of digitising the economy with this technology.”

“There needs to be this understanding that if a country doesn’t have critical 5G infrastructure, the impact is way broader than telecommunications.” Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm CEO-elect and President

The Qualcomm CEO-elect also believes 5G will revolutionise factories. Manufacturing will be about “smart production, smaller factories, shorter product cycles, and everything connected to the cloud,” he said. “Instead of having a robot with a server on it, you’ll have processes controlling the robot from the cloud using data for AI. It’s a massive and different kind of transformation.”

As the event closed, Nick Read urged policymakers to use the EU recovery fund to “create a digital dividend for current and future generations” to invest in technologies, industries and digitisation.

José María Álvarez-Pallete López asked the audience to “forget all the old paradigms and create a new framework” based on European values.

While Cristiano Amon advised to “regulate so you have an environment that protects European data and where European innovation can occur."

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