Europe’s leading industrialists have warned that failure to co-ordinate the rollout of superfast 5G wireless technology across the region could leave supply chains uncompetitive and lead to declining investment.
Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of the European Round Table for Industry, which represents the interests of Europe’s biggest industrial companies, said the EU’s slow progress in bringing 5G on line would also jeopardise the bloc’s ambitions to cut carbon emissions as part of the vaunted “green deal” unveiled last year.
“We have had too much of fragmented approach in Europe,” said Mr Svanberg in an interview with the Financial Times. “If we don’t have the right support for small and medium-sized companies, we will not have the support we need for our [larger] businesses either. That will drive our investment. We need to make sure we have the right environment, right infrastructure . . . 5G is key to that and it is one of the most key parts to creating a competitive society in the future.”
The ERT is made up of the chairmen and chief executives of 55 European industrial companies, with combined annual revenues of more than €2tn.
On Europe’s ambitions to be a carbon-neutral continent by 2050, Mr Svanberg, chairman of Swedish truckmaker Volvo and former chief executive of telecoms equipment maker, Ericsson, said: “A prerequisite for a green deal is that we have digital success. It is an important task for Europe’s leadership and for heads of state to co-ordinate the rollout of 5G.”
The ERT chairman’s comments came as the lobby group unveiled a new study highlighting a wide gap between Europe and global competitors such as the US, South Korea and China on the implementation of 5G, considered vital to the success of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, smart factories and more.
The report warned of an “urgent need” for the EU to take action to close the gap.
Policies were needed to reduce the costs of investing in 5G, to spur the rollout of infrastructure, and to make spectrum affordable and available. “5G will be integral to the future of Europe’s digital infrastructure and resilience,” the report stated. “Enterprises will depend on connectivity for their business survival.”
Yet, more than half of EU member states had not yet launched 5G commercial services, the report stated, whereas South Korea and the US had begun more than a year ago.
The EU’s 27 member states had deployed only about 10 5G base stations per million citizens while South Korea had 1,500 per million. The bloc had also only upgraded 1 per cent of base stations to 5G, whereas the South Koreans had already revamped 98 per cent of theirs by the end of last year.
And the system allocating spectrum to 5G operators remained fragmented and complex. Two-thirds of EU member states had not allocated spectrum to operators, whereas South Korea and China had completed the process in 2018 and 2019.
The poor performance relative to global competitors is in stark contrast to the pledges made by Europe’s leaders, both at the European Commission and government level, to lead the world on 5G.
The desire to lead, which included the establishment of test beds in the UK and dedicated spectrum holdings for industry in Germany, was driven by hopes that the technology would be a significant economic driver for the region. Equally, there was frustration that Europe had fallen behind other markets in the 4G era, meaning that the app economy in areas including ecommerce, entertainment and social media was largely dominated by US and Asian companies.
5G, a technology initially expected to drive the automation of industry as opposed to offering immediate consumer benefits, was seen as a vehicle for innovation. However a debate over the role of China’s Huawei — a significant player in 5G technology — has led to a degree of paralysis within Europe according to vendors and carriers across the sector.
Network upgrades have been stalled by lengthy periods of indecision on the part of governments over whether to cap or ban the use of the Chinese company's equipment for 5G networks.
The high cost, and in some cases slow pace, of spectrum auctions to release airwaves for 5G has also inhibited a rapid upgrade of wireless networks. That is in stark contrast to markets such as the US, where record amounts of spectrum have been sold in the run-up to 5G, as well as Japan and China.
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