The crucial role of digital connectivity represents one of the most precious lessons we have learned during the pandemic. Digital tools have proved essential in ensuring that many people in Europe could continue to work during lockdowns and, thanks to connectivity, continue to communicate with their loved ones without interruption.
Resilient and high-speed communication networks have also been among the key drivers enabling many enterprises, including small and medium-sized ones, to adapt their business models and operations to the new economic challenges that COVID-19 has created.
Once the pandemic is behind us, digital connectivity and its most advanced applications, such as 5G, will not only be at the centre of Europe’s recovery, but will also represent the critical success factors of the digital transition.
“The tangible infrastructure will not be enough if we do not also invest in our intangible assets, such as the knowledge and capabilities of our workforce”
Be it the development of smart cities and automated mobility, or e-health and industry automation, the swift rollout of 5G will significantly help to digitalise European society and will bring with it meaningful consequences for our day-to-day lives. This process will not be easy, but I am optimistic for two reasons.
First, we now have a Recovery and Resilience Facility that is going to support national recovery plans while including a strong digital focus, earmarking at least 20 percent of expenditure for priorities in this field.
Second, this March, the European Commission announced an ambitious strategy to achieve the so-called ‘Digital Decade’ by 2030. This means we can now count on tangible targets against which we can measure the progress of the digital transition.
The Digital Decade will focus on four key areas: skills, the digital transformation of businesses, the digitalisation of public services and securing digital infrastructure.
For connectivity, the European Commission aims to have “all households in Europe covered by a Gigabit network, with all populated areas covered by 5G” by 2030.
This goal is not only ambitious but also challenging, particularly when it comes to rural areas, where the technological divide is still significant.
If successful, 5G can help provide essential services, including remote education and healthcare, while having a transformative effect on local communities. 5G networks will also have positive effects on small and medium-sized enterprises, which are often unaware of the opportunities this technology offers.
“If successful, 5G can help provide essential services, including remote education and healthcare, while having a transformative effect on local communities”
This revolution will not only affect the manufacturing industry, but also the provision of services. However, I cannot see us succeeding if we do not develop parallel programmes on digital skills.
The tangible infrastructure will not be enough if we do not also invest in our intangible assets, such as the knowledge and capabilities of our workforce. Research and innovation is what brings together these tangible and intangible aspects.
This is why I am glad that one of the public-private partnerships under Horizon Europe will specifically focus on Smart Networks and Services. This joint undertaking will be committed to achieving breakthroughs in 5G deployment and in the development of the future 6G network.
Closer collaboration between the public sector, industry and the scientific community is also crucial in addressing the legitimate concerns citizens may have about 5G’s potential effects on health.
Scientifically robust evidence and fact-based information are essential for effective decision-making in this field, as well as avoiding the proliferation of fake news on the issue. Health must always come first.
5G is not just about economic competitiveness and research. Its rollout goes hand in hand - for obvious reasons - with geopolitical considerations. I still believe that if Europe is to fully enjoy the benefits of 5G application, we should consider this infrastructure as a strategic asset - a European strategic asset.
This will be crucial not only in guaranteeing the enhancement of our economy’s competitiveness, but also in reinforcing our digital position in the global arena, where our Union still lags behind.
I very much welcome the political changes taking place across the Atlantic and I am positive that President Joe Biden is committed to fostering good relations between the United States and the European Union; a process that he already initiated during his recent trip to Europe.
Yet, if we truly want to build European leadership in the technological field, we must switch perspective and refrain from merely deciding where we stand in the USA-China or USA-Russia dichotomy.
If we desire to be strategically autonomous, we should build our own position through leadership and inspiring others. The Digital Decade is the European Union’s opportunity to show the world that a Europe-made digital revolution is truly possible.