Why the EU must claim its place in the 5G race

As the advent of 5G gathers pace, the EU must ensure that it becomes a relevant player in the race for a ubiquitous technology that will redefine the world we live in, argues Nicolás González Casares.
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By Nicolás González Casares

Nicolás González Casares (ES, S&D) is a member of Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee

06 Aug 2020

The introduction of 5G o­ffers great promise, a new way of living and working, a new era with great hopes during uncertain times.

But beyond the enthusiasm surrounding this new technology, there are at least two issues that must be addressed: the need to guide a technology that promises to change the world and the need to protect against the risk of external interference, specifically due to 5G’s central role in our future social and economic relations.

Starting with the latter, a country that undoubtedly springs to mind is China. No longer a developing country, China is now a world leader and an increasingly assertive technological power in the international arena.

As the European Commission points out, the Asian giant is now a “cooperating partner” and a “negotiating partner,” with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests. It is an “economic competitor” in the pursuit of technological leadership and a “systemic rival” in the promotion of alternative models of governance.

“Europe cannot limit itself to being a battleground where the US and China engage in their power games; it cannot afford to be reduced to a contested market”

If there is one domain that reflects these tensions, it is the digital one, especially the power struggle between the US and China over the dominance of 5G networks.

There are growing accusations against certain Chinese companies for allegedly creating back doors in their equipment that would allow the Chinese government access to data and communications of users using these networks.

These suspicions are fuelled by the fact that China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires Chinese citizens and companies to provide the Government with access to the private data of citizens and companies from other countries on the basis of national security or national interests.

Over the past few months, EU and national authorities have conducted a thorough audit of the strengths and weaknesses of their networks and their threat preparedness in the deployment of 5G.

And the diagnosis has been surprisingly realistic: greater exposure to attacks and more potential entry points for attackers; greater exposure to risks related to the dependence of mobile network operators on their providers; greater risks arising from high dependencies on providers, and yes, interference from third countries.

Europe cannot limit itself to being a battleground where the US and China engage in their power games; it cannot a­fford to be reduced to a contested market, but must become a relevant player in the race for a ubiquitous technology that will redefine the world we live in.

Europe cannot limit itself to accepting more technology and rules from third parties, but must define them on the basis of solid ethical principles. If this was important before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more so after it.

If anything has become clearer, it is the crucial nature of electronic communications in homes and businesses and the need to extend 5G coverage to every corner of our territory so as not to generate new gaps in societies that are increasingly dependent on high-speed connections to carry out their daily activities.

It is therefore of the utmost importance to combat the unscientific claims which were made about this technology during the pandemic, taking advantage of citizens’ concerns over any potential threats to their health.

It is vital to quash unfounded fears among citizens to ensure the successful deployment of 5G. Of course, confidence in the security of this technology - which promises the possibility of guiding automated transport, or carrying out surgical operations remotely - must leave no room for the slightest doubt.

“If anything has become clearer, it is the crucial nature of electronic communications in homes and businesses and the need to extend 5G coverage to every corner of our territory so as not to generate new gaps in societies that are increasingly dependent on high-speed connections”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has focused on “achieving technological sovereignty in some critical technological areas”: such as blockchain, high-performance computing, quantum computing, algorithms and tools to enable the exchange and use of data.

It is true, however, that among the top ten technology companies worldwide by market capitalisation, eight are American, one is Chinese and one is South Korean. If we look at the turnover, there are five American companies in the ranking, one Chinese, one South Korean, one Taiwanese and one Japanese. There are no European companies.

The fact that no European company leads the world rankings does not mean that there is not a rich and innovative digital ecosystem in Europe, in areas such as artificial intelligence, 5G, data analysis or cyber security.

In cyber security, for example, the EU hosts a wide range of specialised centres, and in AI, Europe hosts 32 percent of the world’s research institutions. Such knowledge, if transformed into marketable products and solutions and incorporated into our economy, could enable us to make the necessary leap to leadership.

I agree with Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton that Europe has everything it needs to lead this technological race; we have plenty of capacity and talent. But let us move now from words to action.

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