The clock is ticking – León could determine whether Europe leads or lags behind

Telecoms ministers convening today in the Spanish city of León do so at a crucial juncture in the European digital communications agenda. Over the next two days they will debate the future of connectivity in the region, a future brought into greater focus a couple of weeks ago by Commissioner Thierry Breton’s call for the European Union to do “whatever it takes” to ensure Europe’s digital competitiveness on the world stage.

Mr. Breton’s statement coincided with the European Commission publishing the initial results of its public consultation on the future of the European telecoms sector and its infrastructure, which clearly identified the need for urgency and momentum if the European Union is to achieve its Digital Decade targets. Indeed, it’s this agenda that will provide the common thread of three working sessions in León including one dedicated specifically to the 2030 ambitions.

We sincerely hope that ministers will use the two days to give due consideration to what we believe are the key priorities for the Digital Decade:

  • Introducing a digital infrastructure framework that enables the huge effort in rollout and network transformation required to achieve 2030 targets, fostering investment by tackling low returns for service providers and finding a new financing model in the digital value chain that allows for sustainable, secure and efficient use of Europe’s networks.
  • Addressing barriers to the European telecom single market by simplifying and removing outdated regulation and reducing costs and red tape for network deployment.
  • Urgently building scale to enable in-market consolidation as a fundamental stepping stone to ensure that European telecom operators can be globally competitive.
  • Facilitating cooperation on innovative technologies that will drive connectivity transformation towards a highly performant and secure digital infrastructure, bringing computing capabilities closer to the end users and enabling the provision of pan European digital services.
  • Introducing a more pro-investment approach to EU spectrum policy.

Progress on these pillars of development are key if Europe wants to get back to eye level with global competitors that are today far ahead in adopting the next generation of technologies.

Mr. Breton’s proposed Digital Networks Act needs to place digital connectivity back at the heart of the European economy. For this to happen, the welcoming aspirations laid out in Commissioner Breton’s statements now need to be urgently translated into concrete and substantial policy action with regards to Europe’s telecoms framework.

2030 will be here in no time at all, and policy makers must act with agility to ensure that the Digital Decade is achieved. In particular, this means gigabit connectivity to every household and 5G coverage in all populated areas, along with the expansion of 10,000 highly secure and climate-neutral edge nodes. The provision of ultra-high bandwidth, low-latency connectivity  will enable new applications for automated mobility, eHealth and energy management, as well as the progressive adoption of greater virtualisation, AI, and metaverse-type applications (such as ‘digital twins’).

There will be numerous benefits to society and the economy through these transformational developments, but they won’t happen by magic. With increasing network speeds (and decreasing latency) comes increasing demands on network capacity – capacity that needs to be built out by network operators.

It should be said that Europe has plenty of 5G today: nearly two-thirds of the region’s operators have launched 5G networks, and that number continues to grow, albeit at a pace restricted by the cost of deployment. But the 5G we’re talking about here is only one ‘flavour’ of the fifth-generation mobile technology. ‘Full’ standalone 5G – whereby it is also deployed in the core of the network – can truly unlock the connectivity potential of 5G as an enabling broadband technology, but in this regard, Europe is behind other parts of the world.

So the opportunity this week’s meeting in León presents is for telecoms ministers to drive momentum in making this transformation happen faster. Because the clock is ticking. Standing in the way of 2030 are structural challenges that are currently holding back the European telecoms sector: high regulatory costs and a lack of ROI preventing operators from reinvesting in innovation, limiting their ability to scale, hampering EU competitiveness and any aspiration for open strategic autonomy in the digital space.

Such  imbalances ultimately disadvantage EU citizens and every stakeholder in the ecosystem, not just telecoms service providers. Everyone shares the same goal – digital (and green) future for Europe and its citizens, in which the region stays in control of its connectivity.

Europe could lead, or it could lag behind. It will take political willpower to decide which.