How can Europe avoid playing catch-up in the race for 5G?

Europe's World

Digital, Data & Transformation

Picture of Eva Kaili
Eva Kaili

Member of the European Parliament

The global race for 5G leadership is heating up, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the rollout of fifth-generation cellular networks will become a dominant geopolitical issue this year. Countries and companies across the world are gearing up for this next generation of networks, with applications expected to transform healthcare and personalised medicine, agriculture, and the all-encompassing smart cities of the future.

Fifth generation networks are estimated to deliver worldwide revenues of approximately €225bn in 2025 and will therefore play a key role in the future development of Europe’s digital economy and society. Above and beyond estimated revenues, 5G networks will be critical for applications of immersive technologies such as autonomous vehicles and Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructures, which are areas of strategic importance for Europe’s digital future.

Around the world, countries and companies are following different strategies in the race for 5G leadership. The different strategies between the West and the East – driven namely by the United States on the one hand, and China and South Korea on the other – have created a technological divide. In the midst of this divide, Europe appears to be taking a much more meticulous, risk-based approach to developing, piloting and deploying 5G networks. Europe is embarking upon this transformative journey with caution, ensuring that network security and resilience are engraved in its strategy to deliver the 5G targets for the future of our economy and society.

European policymakers are adopting a calculated and coordinated approach

While Chinese, South Korean and American companies have aggressively pursued the rollout of 5G networks in the last year, considerations relating to privacy risks, opaque corporate structures and, in some cases, close ties with one-party, authoritarian governments dominate the policy discourse at the European Union level. Aware of the potential privacy risks stemming from the high volume of personal data transmission over 5G networks, and the possible security threats facing the European network infrastructure, European policymakers are adopting a calculated and coordinated approach aimed at both identifying the risks and then treating them proactively.

Naturally, this process is time consuming and requires great coordination of effort at both the national and European levels. In the global geopolitical arena, Europe should mitigate its risks of exposure and disallow any leverage to foreign market and state actors, who may elect to pursue an agenda that contradicts Europe’s vision.

Europe faces three core issues that need to be addressed in order for 5G networks to be developed and deployed to the EU’s advantage, with respect to its vision for privacy and security and in line with its objective of achieving technological sovereignty.

It is imperative that Europe builds rules for secure 5G networks

To begin with, Europe must work towards a harmonised approach to free up spectrum bands, which will enable full-fledged 5G services. Currently, the high costs of spectrum auctions demotivate market actors from initiating large-scale investments. The high capital costs combined with the low return for service providers investing in new network technology make it difficult to justify investments. In order to fill this gap, the European Commission has earmarked public funding of €700mn through the Horizon 2020 Programme to support investment activity in 5G. European regulators have also devised a collaborative investment plan with the industry, expected to add up to €3bn.

Secondly, Europe must address security risks related to the rollout of 5G through a consolidated strategy that identifies critical infrastructure and adjusts network security standards accordingly. 5G infrastructure will serve a wide range of application and sectors, and will power emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud infrastructure. It is imperative that Europe builds rules for secure 5G networks, which will host and transmit vast amounts of sensitive and personal data.

In January, the European Commission endorsed the EU toolbox for secure 5G networks in Europe. This is a decisive step towards strengthening security requirements, assessing risk profiles of suppliers, applying relevant restrictions for high-risk suppliers, and excluding key assets considered as critical and sensitive.

European regulators must consider the health implications posed by fifth-generation networks

The European Commission will also support the implementation of an EU approach on 5G cybersecurity through updated telecommunications and cybersecurity rules, coordination on standardisation as well as EU-wide certification, and screening of foreign direct investment to protect the European 5G infrastructure.

Lastly, European regulators must consider the health implications posed by fifth-generation networks. Significant concerns arise from possible exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Moreover, the use of much higher frequencies, the aggregation of different signals and the complex interference effects – especially in dense urban areas – are areas that need to be studied, and for which Europe should work towards a coordinated strategy to offset any potential health risks from 5G network technology.

Europe is issuing clear rules, which will be fulfilled by everyone who enters the 5G network industry. Europe is not lagging behind in the global race for 5G leadership; rather, it is adopting a more cautious, coordinated approach to ensure that when 5G networks are rolled out, they will be operational, secure and will have a multiplying effect on the value for both industry and society.

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