It’s too early for Europe to get defensive on 5G, Mr Commissioner

Surely it’s too early for arse-covering on 5G? We’re not even at the early standards stages of 5G, so it’s a bit premature to press the “don’t panic/actually do panic” switch.

Yet there are signs of twitchiness at the European Commission, given its public summons of leading operators to discuss what can be done to get a move on with turning Europe into a 5G wonderland.

As there has been no official statement, beyond that interestingly targetted leak (by whom?) to the FT, we are left wondering what the purpose of today’s meeting is, although revelation may ensue via the always fascinating, if frequently opaque, means of Commissioner Gunther’s Twitter feed.

what is twisting the EC’s melon here? Europe is doing just fine in 5G R&D, and the EC should be aware of that because it is funding much of the effort

In any case, if Gunther is calling in the operators for a bit of redirection, what is twisting the EC’s melon here? Europe is doing just fine in 5G R&D, and the EC should be aware of that because it is funding much of the effort. And Commissioner Gunther himself must be fairly aware of this good momentum because he turns up regularly to give the 5G-PPP his blessing. For example, the man extracted some capital out of a launch event held at MWC15 last year, at which the CTOs of the “European” vendors (Alu, Nokia, Ericsson) lined up together with European operators (and NTTDoCoMo) to talk specifically about European efforts on 5G.

Deutsche Telekom has its 5G:haus and was a leading light in developing and producing NGMN requirements. EE and Vodafone are very involved in 5GIC. Telefonica has opened a dedicated research centre in Spain as well as being involved in the above initiatives. Telecom Italia has its own research ongoing and if Orange is the least publicly committed, then it has also taken some 5G steps. Ericsson never damn well stops talking about 5G, attaching it to most of its networks-based messaging these days. Nokia’s 5G messaging is slightly less ubiquitous but still very visible.

Europe is also doing a pretty good job in projecting its “European-ness” onto these 5G projects. American commentators look at the 5G-PPP and the programmes flying under its banner and wonder where their equivalent is.

So what is the EC worried about? Could it be that it cannot bear to see the Koreans and Japanese launch “5G” at their sporting events in 2018? Or even to see Verizon talk of 5G bits and pieces being live in 2016. If that is the case then what it needs to do is choose a major event, identify a few bits of Phase 1 5G tech, say a bit of super carrier aggregation (possible with unlicensed), or something in the order of larger scale MIMO, and badge it up as a live 5G pilot. Hey presto: Europe’s in the lead on 5G. Of course, the real prize lies beyond such trivial and ephemeral victories, and in establishing Europe as the pre-eminent power base in 5G service provision, technology monetisation, and the ensuing virtuous circle that will materialise for Europe’s tech industry.

This is considerably more problematic. So perhaps what we have here is some early action from the department of arse covering? The EC is likely aware that:
1. Korean and Chinese governments, and Japanese operators, can pull many more levers than it can, giving these countries a likely head start in commercialisation of the technology. Samsung, for instance, is said to be forging ahead on antenna technology given a fair following wind by research from government (read military) sources.
2. globalisation of standards definitions and requirements will make the idea of a “European 5G” redundant in any case. There won’t be any such things as a European 5G industry, or patent  pool, or “European 5G winners”.

One suspects, therefore, that the EC doesn’t want to be held responsible when the inevitable “Europe left behind in 5G” headlines arrive.

The only likely metric of “5G winners” will be which countries can claim to have 5G services available first. Europe will be pushed to win that race. And globalisation makes it hard to define a European patent space or something identifiably European in terms of how 5G is enabling the European tech sector.

One suspects, therefore, that the EC doesn’t want to be held responsible when the inevitable “Europe left behind in 5G” headlines arrive. We got the operators in, they will say, and we told them to get on with it. We even asked them what they needed to make it happen: sweetheart regulatory deals, easier access to spectrum, dedicated vertical industry task forces etc So don’t blame us, it’s not our fault.

As we have said – it is a confusing position to take, given the fact that Europe, as far as it can be, is doing pretty well on 5G. It’s overly negative in terms of the signals it sends. It’s defence, not offence, if you like.

Of course, there remains the possibility that this public summons was intended to portray another message, that the EC is merely trying to enable its operators to enter that offensive mindset. Perhaps Gunther’s twitter feed will enlighten us.

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