Telecoms ministers from EU countries agreed on a plan to set up fast 5G internet networks by 2025, five years after the European Commission’s original proposal, and snubbed a proposal to reform rules for selling off radio spectrum.
Ministers signed off on a list of goals to make 5G networks available around the EU at a meeting in Brussels on Monday (4 December), but they did not budge on a Commission plan to make easier and less lengthy processes for national authorities to auction off radio spectrum to telecoms companies.
Spectrum auctions rake in fees for member states that can stretch up to several billions of euros, and ministers are reluctant to agree on common EU rules that could change how long a spectrum license lasts and conditions for selling it to firms.
Estonian Digital Minister Urve Palo insisted at the end of the meeting that there are no “major obstacles” to reaching an agreement between the 28 member states on spectrum rules.
“Member states do have slightly different views on how much regulation there should be from the European Union on how to distribute the frequencies, and we’ve realised that will be largely down to the member states to decide,” Palo said.
Palo led discussions at the meeting, which was the last time telecoms ministers gathered under Estonia’s presidency of the Council of Ministers. Bulgaria will take over from Estonia in January.
But the Commission is impatient with national governments, and warned that watering down the rules on spectrum could throw off track its recent overhaul of EU telecoms law. The Commission proposed the legal change in September 2016 with the goal of encouraging telecoms firms to invest in new, faster internet networks.
Private firms will need invest €500 billion to expand fast internet around the EU by 2025, with a projected gap of €155 billion if the law does not change, according to the Commission’s estimates.
“We risk losing the overall pro-investment orientation of the code if the member states are on the one hand super conservative on spectrum” and tack on stricter investment regulations, one Commission source with knowledge of the negotiations said.
The telecoms “code”, the Commission’s name for the new bill, can only go into effect once it is approved in three-way negotiations between member states, the European Parliament and the Commission.
Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip told EURACTIV.com he still wants to push a measure in his original proposal that would require national authorities to sell spectrum licenses for periods lasting at least 25 years – so that companies do not frequently need to renew them.
“For me a simple solution of 25 years is of course the best solution,” Ansip said.
Ministers have rejected the proposal for any requirement on how long licenses must last.
Mariya Gabriel, the Commissioner in charge of negotiating digital legislation, gave muted endorsement to the ministers’ plans to introduce 5G during a joint news conference with Palo on Monday.
The strategy to introduce 5G by 2025 “certainly represents progress,” Gabriel said.
“However, what is still missing is the legally binding deadline for the allocation of spectrum,” she added.
Gabriel said that member states need to set a binding deadline for when they will start selling two radio frequency bands 2.6 and 26 GHz—and she wants that to be before 2020. The ministers’ roadmap says that they will work towards “technical harmonisation” of those bands by 2019, but does not reference any binding deadline.
Another Commission source said the one-page document is “simply a political declaration. What we need are binding rules on spectrum.”
Telecoms companies have criticised national governments for refusing the Commission’s proposal for more unified rules on spectrum.
Lise Fuhr, director of ETNO, an association that represents large telecoms firms including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, said the declaration “sends a positive signal” before negotiators from the three institutions meet on Wednesday (6 December) to parse through details of the spectrum proposal.
“But it’s now important that the ambition is enshrined in concrete regulatory actions that match the Commission’s proposal on license duration and predictability,” Fuhr added.
The 5G roadmap also falls short of the Commission’s goals to have the fast internet network available by 2020, instead of 2025. EU heads of state already signed off on the five-year delay at a European Council summit in October.
The ministers outlined a list of goals they want to meet before the 2025 deadline. By next year, they want to finish negotiating the telecoms code. They also want to make more radio spectrum available in 2019, and make sure that 5G is available in at least one city in every EU member state by 2020.
“We confirmed our readiness to position Europe as the global lead market for 5G and to establish policy and regulatory framework conditions at regional, national and European level that are clear, predictable, future-looking and facilitate investment within a competitive market,” the declaration reads.