5G: EU must adapt to speed of innovation

The speed at which new technologies have been developing means the EU must act fast and in a coordinated manner to come up with effective telecoms rules, says Pilar del Castillo Vera.

Pilar del Castillo Vera | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Pilar del Castillo Vera

01 Jul 2016

The last time the European Commission presented a review of the regulatory framework for electronic communications was 13 November 2007 - nine years ago. Since then, digital technological developments have radically transformed the context in which the new review will take place.

Just look at the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing and, soon, 5G: these all demonstrate the impact of the current digital revolution.

Additionally, the telecoms sector is currently undergoing structural changes, and telecoms operators are no longer lone actors. They now compete with services that are increasingly used by end-users as substitutes for traditional electronic communication services, such as voice telephony.



Still, telecoms remain at the heart of the digital single market. They provide the backbone for digital products and services to thrive.

In the past, successive adaptations of EU telecoms rules, combined with the application of EU competition rules, have been crucial in ensuring that markets operate more competitively, lowering prices and improving the quality of service for consumers and businesses.

It's time to adapt and fine-tune the regulatory framework to the current environment.

First, as many recent studies have underlined, the EU currently suffers from an investment gap in broadband networks, and long-term evolution (LTE) deployment continues to drop compared to other regions of the world. As a result, European consumers, compared with the US, Japan and South Korea, consume less and pay more on a per bit basis.

In order to fill this gap the review must provide simpler, flexible and more proportionate regulation in those areas where infrastructure competition has emerged.

Second, there needs to be more regulatory consistency. We must apply similar rules to all service providers for similar service offerings. Consumers must have trust in new digital services regardless of the nature of the service provider.

This doesn't mean, however, that we must aim to regulate everything. I believe deregulation is also advisable. In any case, we must be careful not to hamper innovation.

Third, one of the main areas of action of the review must be achieving a true pan-European approach to spectrum management.

Indeed, it is clear that radio spectrum is a critical resource for the internal market for mobile, wireless broadband communications in the Union, and essential for the future competitiveness of the EU.

However, national spectrum management has resulted in widely varying conditions regarding factors of relevance to investment returns and decision-making, such as pricing, licence durations, territorial coverage, spectrum tradability, spectrum caps and reservations and regulated wholesale access to mobile networks.

The absence of consistent EU-wide objectives and criteria for spectrum assignment at national level creates barriers to entry, hinders competition and reduces predictability for investors across Europe. Therefore, radio spectrum should be managed by member states under a more harmonised framework that is consistent with the need for a digital single market.

This is especially the case when it comes to 5G, an area in which policymakers still have a lot of work to do. 

For example, unlike the traditional approach of long-term exclusive licensing in the mobile sector, spectrum management of 5G is likely to require a mix of approaches including exclusive licences, sharing arrangements (geographic- or time-based), dynamic database access and licence-exempt use, depending on the frequency band and the type of use. 

Consequently, if we are to fully seize 5G's innovative potential, the member states must act in a highly coordinated manner.

Finally, the framework review represents an excellent opportunity for the EU to reinforce the necessary environment for economies of scale to develop, be globally competitive and become a 'first mover'. However, for this to happen, we must act fast and in a way that is future-proof. The speed of digital transformation means timing is everything.


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