EU digital chief throws €50M in 5G’s direction to help continent regain mobile lead

Europe’s digital chief, Neelie Kroes, wants to fix the EU mobile industry. Still stung by the loss of her funding for ensuring the roll-out of high-speed fixed broadband across the EU, she wants mobile to take up the slack, and to that end she has thrown €50 million ($65 million) at 5G research and urged member states to get their act together regarding wireless spectrum.

Kroes has a 2020 goal for the “delivery” of 5G. That seems like a tall order, although the proliferation of IP-connected sensors in the internet of things may well necessitate a shift to even more efficient technologies than 4G.

Neelie Kroes “Rolling out today’s networks is important,” she said. “But what comes after? For the next global standard, and the next generation of technology, will Europe lead the world, or merely follow?”

The €50 million for 5G research includes €16 million for the METIS project we reported on in December. The goal here is to research faster, more spectrally efficient and more power-efficient mobile broadband than 4G – which in itself seeks to tick all those boxes, but which is not as Europe-led as 2G and even 3G were.

The EU’s investment is for the public part of an industry-wide public-private partnership – the companies involved, including some of the continent’s big carriers (Deutsche Telekom(s dt), France Telecom, Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Portugal Telecom) and infrastructure players (Alcatel-Lucent(s alu), Ericsson(s eric), NSN), will have to stump up more, although they would be doing that anyway.

“Europe used to lead the world on wireless… European 5G is an unmissable opportunity to recapture the global technological lead,” Kroes said.

Of course, coming up with the technology is one thing, and deploying it is another. That’s where those complaints over EU spectrum harmonization come in – as Kroes puts it, the continent’s spectrum allocation map currently resembles “a bowl of spaghetti”, which is one reason why South Korea (population 50 million) has more 4G subscriptions than the whole of the EU (population 500 million). Kroes is really not happy that 17 of the 27 EU member states still don’t have 4G at all:

“We’ve already fixed a target to find a total of 1200MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband. But on average national governments have only awarded 65 percent of the spectrum we have already harmonised in the EU. So when Member States aren’t implementing legal commitments, we will use our full… powers.”

This should come as music to the carriers’ ears, as will her promise to cut down on the bureaucracy around infrastructure planning permits and inter-operator network sharing. Kroes has traditionally used her MWC speeches to lambast the carriers over issues such as roaming charges – this time she’s on their side:

“I am still determined to deliver broadband for all: and for that we must improve the market. So that it works for you in the industry, works for consumers, works for the economy. A European telecoms market more coherent, more integrated, more efficient; with lower investor risks and higher investor rewards.”

Spectrum allocations are a pain to fix, but they are fixable. As for 5G, €50 million isn’t a game-changing amount but it may be enough to stimulate research at this very early stage of the technology’s development. It’s true that Europe let itself fall behind on 4G, and that has real knock-on effects in terms of competitiveness. The EU would be smart to avoid making that mistake again.