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5G promises breakneck internet speeds, but Europe's sluggishness could see it fall behind China and the US – CNBC

5G promises breakneck internet speeds, but Europe's sluggishness could see it fall behind China and the US – CNBC

Last week, Mobile World Congress — the biggest mobile event in the world took place— with 5G at the front and center of discussions.

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Huge stands from giant telecoms companies to network equipment players like Huawei and Nokia highlighted their efforts in the 5G space. The industry talked up how the next generation of mobile internet could bring blistering download speeds, streaming of virtual reality games, support for driverless cars and a whole host of other applications.

What is clear is that the race for 5G is on. What’s even clearer is that Europe is at risk of falling behind the U.S., China and other parts of Asia.

Korea Telecom, one of the companies involved in 5G trials at the Winter Olympics, had a demonstration of a virtual reality game streamed over the super-fast mobile internet standard. Meanwhile, Hans Vestberg, chief technology officer at U.S. mobile network Verizon, told CNBC he “sees the U.S. and parts of Asia is really ahead on 5G.”

But behind the hype and optimism shown by the Americans and Asians, the Europeans struck a much more reserved tone, even from the European Union’s own lawmakers.

“I’m worried,” Andrus Ansip, the European commissioner responsible for the so-called digital single market, told CNBC in an interview last week.

The EU has set out connectivity goals, with one of those being that at least one major city in each member state has fully commercial 5G running by 2020. To meet the goals, Ansip said that 500 billion euros ($615 billion) of investment will be required, but at the current pace, a 155 billion euro funding gap will remain.

Part of the issue in Europe is spectrum allocation, which is the certain radio waves required for various communication standards. While other countries are pushing ahead and making spectrum available for 5G, Europe is fragmented on the issue.

EU lawmakers decided last week to free up 5G radio frequencies for a 20-year time period. But many in the industry, including the GSMA, a body which represents mobile operators globally, called for a 25-year time period, arguing that it would spur more investment. Before the new EU laws were decided, Mats Granryd, the director general of the GMSA, told CNBC that a longer period of spectrum ownership was needed.

“It will take time to build these networks (and) to get return for that investment. Therefore, we need to feel secure that the spectrum that we rightfully bought will be ours for a long period of time,” Granryd said.

Another issue is the different rules across the 28 EU member states.

U.S. mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon have committed to start rolling out 5G this year and next year and China is shaping up to be the biggest 5G market by 2022, according to data from CCS Insight.

While 5G promises breakneck internet speeds, the sluggish movements of the EU could see it trailing behind, and that’s bad news since the technology could prove a boost to business, consumers, and ultimately the economy.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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