Fifth generation mobile networks - 5G - are not only about very high speeds; they will change the world as we know it, by multiplying the number of interconnected devices that communicate with each other and with people.
While the Internet of Things already exists on a smaller scale, 5G will revolutionise its opportunities in the coming years, thanks to its large capacity, fast speeds and almost zero latency.
5G could, for example, be a game-changer for the transport industry by enabling the deployment of self-driving vehicles that can liaise with other vehicles, pedestrians and roadside infrastructure.
Likewise, in the field of healthcare, it will allow the development of new types of medical devices and applications such as remote surgery.
My own country, Estonia, has been a frontrunner in testing and deploying 5G networks.
Estonia was one of the first countries where the public was able to experience the high speeds of 5G in the Port of Tallinn.
Network companies, mobile operators and technology companies in Estonia have also been experimenting with different applications for 5G.
For example, the Digital Summit organised during the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017 featured a demonstration with an excavator operated from a distance through a 5G network, and last year there was even the world’s first 5G concert connecting musicians from two different Estonian cities.
Estonia’s aim is to reach 5G connectivity in its larger cities and suburbs by 2023, and in the main transport corridors by 2025.
This is in line with the general EU targets set in the 5G Action Plan during the Estonian Presidency.
However, it seems highly likely that more-rural and sparsely populated areas in Europe will have to stick with 4G technology - or in the worst case, even slower previous generation networks - for the near future.
Many of these areas already struggle with poor connectivity, be it through mobile networks or broadband coverage.
“Slower internet penetration in rural areas, outermost regions or sparsely-populated areas presents an obstacle to achieving the EU’s ambitious goals for the Digital Single Market”
The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) has pointed out that slower internet penetration in rural areas, outermost regions or sparsely populated areas presents an obstacle to achieving the EU’s ambitious goals for the Digital Single Market, and more widely, to the economic and social cohesion in Europe.
This has also been recognised by the European Commission, which has set up - with the CoR - a joint Broadband Platform of local and regional policymakers along with experts.
The first results of its work have been summarised in a ‘Digital Europe for All’ report, drafted by the CoR President Karl-Heinz Lambertz and First Vice-President Markku Markkula.
The European Commission warmly welcomed this at this year’s Digital Assembly in Bucharest in June, while the current Finnish Presidency of the Council also wants to hear our opinion on this important topic.
We at the CoR are urging the next Commission to support cities and communities in their digital transformation and to ensure the economic and social benefits to all local communities and their citizens.
Let me stress that the digital transformation can over huge opportunities for rural areas and their communities, from teleworking to remote healthcare or new forms of smart mobility.
In fact, granting high-speed connectivity to all Europeans could be the most effective way to tackle brain-drain and demographic decline that many rural areas face.
Here, local and regional communities and governments have a key role, as they are responsible for 50 percent of public investment in the EU, receive 25 percent of tax revenues and are major public employers.
We believe that cities and regions can jointly drive the digital revolution, but they need the means to do so.
“The digital transformation can over huge opportunities for rural areas and their communities, ranging from teleworking to remote healthcare or new forms of smart mobility”
The EU’s cohesion policy remains a key tool here, together with the EU’s other financial instruments such as the Connecting Europe facility, the new Digital Europe programme or InvestEU.
These can be combined with other forms of funding, such as loan financing, in cooperation with the European Investment Bank and other development banks.
To make the most of 5G connectivity, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and other new technologies, it is important to work across borders to ensure that standards and solutions developed in EU regions are fully interoperable.
Furthermore, with the development of Internet of Things, ensuring the security of data becomes more and more crucial.
As 5G will be used in critical fields, such as the transport and health sectors, it must be reliable and not vulnerable to external attacks.
In conclusion, 5G will be the most important building block of the digital society in the next decade.
The EU wide introduction of new innovative products and services it facilitates depends on the entire EU enjoying full high-speed internet coverage.
For this reason, cities and regions insist that inclusiveness has to be at the heart of Europe’s digital strategy.