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September 15, 2016updated 18 Sep 2016 7:49pm

5G, gigabit internet and wi-fi: How telcos and trade bodies reacted to EU digital plans

By Ellie Burns

Whether the UK remains in the EU or not, the latter is pushing firmly on with its plans to unite the digital markets of the various EU countries.

Alongside European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address, the Commission launched the European Electronic Communications Code, which aims to reshape the continent’s digital infrastructure over the next decade or so.

This includes ambitions for critical commercial and public bodies to have gigabit internet speeds and for all households, both rural or urban, to have access to 100 Mbps download speeds.

It also proposed that urban areas and major transport infrastructure should have uninterrupted 5G coverage, with the additional goal of having 5G in at least one major city in each member state by 2020.

This was outlined in the 4G action plan, with 2020 slated to see a “coordinated 5G commercial launch”. There were also proposals to create industry cooperation on creating standards and allocating spectrum bands.

There was a new initiative called WiFi4EU that aims to boost free wi-fi take-up through a voucher scheme.

To enable this, the EC proposed a range of reforms including reducing regulation in certain cases and standardising regulation across the EU. It also proposed long license durations for spectrum and stronger consumer protection.

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A few operators, including some based in the UK weighed in on the report.

From the pan-European side, there was approval, but demands for more.

ETNO, the European telecoms association welcomed the vision. However, it called on the EU to provide incentives for major broadband providers to invest in the roll-out of the connectivity,

“Citizens demand speedy roll-out of superfast networks and innovative services: we need to ensure that the new Code provides technologically-inclusive incentives, allowing our Members to deliver a further increase in broadband investment”.

According to ETNO, this would involve ensuring rules are inclusive and “fully technologically neutral”, with no prioritisation of different types of connectivity.

The three technologies it named in this request were fibre-to-the-home, fibre-to-the-cabinet and G.Fast technologies.

This contrasts with the high premium placed on fibre by the EC, as well as by many prominent fibre providers.

On 8 September, the Independent Networks Corporation Association (INCA), which represents UK ‘Altnets’ (alternative broadband infrastructure providers to BT), launched the Building Gigabit Britain report.

This called on the Government to implement a target of 80 percent of businesses and homes to have access to pure fibre connections by 2026. Currently the figure is less than 5 percent.

A spokesperson from BT, which is part of ETNO, echoed the sentiments:

“We welcome the EC’s drive to incentivise investment in fixed and mobile networks.  This is a complex set of proposals and we will be reviewing in detail.

“BT already offers gigabit speeds to businesses across the UK and we plan to reach up to twelve million premises with ultrafast broadband by the end by 2020.

“We are keen for Europe to be ambitious on 5G – a key part of our vision – and this will require a strong pro-investment regulatory framework for spectrum.”
The UK trade body techUK’s deputy CEO Antony Walker weighed in on the EC’s proposals as well, calling it a “mixed bag”.

While techUK saw “some positive proposals” in the announcement, it joined ETNO in lambasting the EC for its focus on fibre.

It said that more emphasis on “outcomes” was needed.

“Innovations that massively increase the speeds that can be delivered over existing fixed line technologies, as well as wireless and satellite solutions, must not be overlooked or considered only where fibre won’t go.”

techUK also attacked the timeframe for the launch of 5G.

It said that while Europe needed to take a “leadership role in 5G” and lauded the idea of sharing best practices, techUK said that this mustn’t lead to a “rushed launch”.

“Operators should have the freedom to launch 5G when it’s right for local market conditions.”

John Hayduk, COO of telecoms company Tata Communications, also said that the 5G roll-out was overly ambitious.

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