A global pandemic at the turn of the decade was not what we had bargained for, but COVID-19 has highlighted Europe’s urgent need to develop digital solutions.
While such focus is also due to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge at the beginning of her mandate, the renewed political interest in European digital and technological sovereignty has undoubtedly been influenced by how heavily our Union has been hit by the pandemic.
We all know about the importance of a resilient and effective European digital infrastructure – and the impact of COVID-19 has now forced us into action. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has said in no unclear terms that 5G technology represents a pillar of Europe’s socio-economic development.
Indeed, 5G wireless technology is at the core of the EU’s critical digital infrastructure and a key element in truly bringing about the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. 5G’s potential to enable the Internet of Things is of course undeniable and its wide-ranging impact on our daily lives is immeasurable.
However, is its implementation and use straightforward? Not entirely. There are several questions, ranging from 5G’s resilience to its security, which we must thoroughly investigate, together with our global neighbours and partners.
“5G wireless technology is at the core of the EU’s critical digital infrastructure, and a key element in truly bringing about the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution”
An international, multi-dimensional approach should be fostered, involving not just governments, but also industry itself as well as civil society. One word should remain key when discussing European 5G solutions: European.
European ownership is crucial to decisively minimising security threats arising from a third country controlling the European network, whether wholly or partially. Certainly, we can discuss the competition policy implications, as well as its timeliness in a sector that leaves regulation in the dust.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that our security should be prioritised and believe that it can be achieved only through the creation of an environment which allows European 5G to thrive.
The European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index 2020 clearly revealed that, in terms of infrastructure, there are discrepancies between Member States. We need to reduce this gap if we truly want 5G to work for us all.
The Commission’s latest Implementing Regulation on small-area wireless access points is a step in the right direction; however, a coherent and high-quality 5G network remains distant.
In recent years, concerns about the health effects of 5G have been raised. Rather than merely dismissing these as speculation, we must ensure an ongoing dialogue between policymakers, academics, experts, and sceptic civil society organisations continues.
Let us address any concerns openly and transparently. No 5G infrastructure can be resilient without delving into cybersecurity issues. While many tend to steer clear of such a technical issue, we must educate ourselves if we truly want to achieve European digital leadership.
In its last Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum rated cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure among the top five short-term global risks for 2020, along with other crucial issues such as extreme heatwaves, the destruction of natural ecosystems and the risk of economic confrontations. This is even more relevant for 5G, thanks to its direct impact on our day-to-day lives.
The toolbox endorsed by the Commission in January to address security risks related to the rollout of 5G goes in the right direction, as it envisages a multi-level approach, and involves Member States.
“One word should remain key when discussing European 5G solutions: European. European ownership is crucial to decisively minimising security threats arising from a third country controlling the European network, whether wholly or partially”
Beyond Member States, however, we must also focus our e‑ orts on both the reskilling and upskilling of citizens’ digital skills. While this necessity goes beyond 5G, it is of particular importance in this area and further increases our international competitiveness.
There is still much work to be done to boost the share of graduates in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, particularly women, and in bridging the gap with global giants such as China and India.
Understanding that this is a crucial aspect of European competitiveness, the latest European Skills Agenda presented by the Commission addresses this issue. An autonomous, secure and resilient European 5G network is possible.
However, we can only create it if we are able to deliver a dual approach, focusing on both the tangible and intangible infrastructure required.
A long-term strategy should encourage the rapid development of physical infrastructure across the board and should also invest heavily in our citizens’ digital skills. Then, and only then, will we be able to usher in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.