5G: too fast for Europe

After most of the possible negative health-related consequences of 5G were confined to the realm of myths, nothing seemed to be stopping the European Union (EU) to get ready for it. After all, several companies are already conducting tests with one of the most important innovations in the upcoming years. The only thing they need is to get the infrastructure in place. However, several network providers in Member States have sounded the alarm.

The problem

The good thing is that 5G can be deployed within an evolved 4G network – something that was impossible when 4G was rolled out. The real problem is related to the frequencies that 5G can operate on. First, 5G can operate above the 6GHz bandwidth, but network providers are unfamiliar with this territory and want to focus south of 6GHz. Second, the real problem, is the bandwidths that can be used in Europe for 5G.

Low bandwidths, for example 700MHz, are ideal for great reach with limited speed, while high bandwidths, such as the 26GHz, can transport massive amounts of data but have a limited reach. The 3,5GHz bandwidth is the ideal solution and therefore the desired bandwidth of network providers and 5G developers. But this frequency – unlike the others – won’t be auctioned any time soon.

Members of Parliament in France, Germany and the Netherlands have asked several questions about the 3,5GHz issue. The problem seems to be in the tiny village of Burum, the Netherlands, where a satellite uplink station is located and used by NATO. Secret services and intelligence agencies are using the entire 3,5GHz bandwidth with this station. Since NATO allies are using the station and this frequency disregards borders, a complex mix of information that could influence national security could reach far outside of the Netherlands, influencing the entire European frequency policy. This issue is causing a deadlock and needs to be urgently addressed.

The Mexican standoff

Companies developing 5G, network operators, MPs, experts, and interest groups all sound the alarm. The EU has to experiment with 5G for a successful rollout and the Union needs to be ready by 2020. Otherwise, other countries will roll out this innovation, making the EU a laggard in fields such as automated driving, robotics, IoT, improved healthcare and many other important areas.

Currently, the issue is in a complicated Mexican standoff. Dutch MPs are afraid that the Netherlands won’t be able to have 5G, German and French MPs are afraid that their countries have the same issue due to the complex relatedness. Ministries of Defense keep hammering on national security and don’t seem to budge, while their intelligence agencies are not entering the debate at all. At the European level, even more actors – associations, European Parliament, European Council, European Commission, all the DG’s involved in digital etc. – are trying to come up with a European solution. And NATO, on an even more macro level, is neglecting the issue altogether – probably since its largest contributor is not affected by the matter.

This Mexican standoff has created a situation in which the 3,5GHz bandwidth won’t be auctioned in the Netherlands until 2023 and the EU will not have the possibility to rollout 5G in large parts of its territory because of it.

The future

What does the future hold? The Dutch will enter in their complex ‘polder’ model, including all stakeholders and a horrifyingly low speed, to come up with a solution. At the EU level, this exercise is repeated and even more complex (and far slower too).

The best bet for the EU not to fall behind with perhaps the greatest innovation of the early 21st century is to pray that the private sector will provide a technical solution. And although all the Wizz kids seem to work on the issue, when you can’t even appoint testing zones because the 3,5GHz is so sacred, even the private sector won’t get you out of this one.

Author: Koen Durlinger

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