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  • Thierry Spanjaard

5G, the snake biting its tail

The European Commission (EC) recently issued a statement pressing for a better collaboration among member states to accelerate 5G deployments, including cutting red tape, improving access to spectrum and cross-border coordination on frequency assignment. The document insists on the diversity of uses of 5G: connected automated mobility, eHealth, energy management, smart manufacturing, safety applications, … In addition, 5G is also expected to become the “eyes and ears” of Artificial Intelligence systems as it will provide real-time data collection and analysis. From its inception, the goal of 5G was to be a “unified future-proof platform,” including a wide variety of usages, hence a wide variety of implementations across different radio frequency bands.

The Commission has adopted as early as 2016 a 5G Action Plan for Europe with the objective to start launching 5G services in all EU Member States by end 2020 at the latest; the Commission then issued a document titled “European Leadership in 5G.” This deployment goes though the attribution of frequencies to mobile network operators. While this attribution is a prerogative of member states, the EC is pressing for harmonization of the radio spectrum across Europe to allow for interoperability of infrastructure across borders.

As of now, already fourteen countries in the EU operate 5G networks in commercial service: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden. Our non-EU neighbors, Norway, Switzerland and the UK also operate 5G commercial networks. Of course, in developed parts of the world, like South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong or the USA, 5G networks have been operational already for months if not for years.

The French government, through the ARCEP, the agency in charge of regulating telecommunications, is to start attributing frequencies through an auction process this end of September 2020. The ARCEP has pre-qualified the four existing MNOs, Bouygues Telecom, Free Mobile, Orange and SFR. What remains to come out from the auction is the relative weight of the different operators in terms of spectrum presence, how much they will have to bid for these radio bands and, as result, what will be the income for the government. As a reminder, the auction of 4G frequencies generated EUR 3.5 billion income for the French government.

At the same time, some environmentalists and opponents of all kinds, at national and European levels, are trying to attract citizens' attention on their fears against 5G technologies. Their arguments are about the increase of exposure to radiations, the effects of radio-frequencies on human bodies, … Some also cite additional electricity consumption as a 5G issue compared to 4G.

The issues they raise are probably due to the youth and the complexity of the technology. Not all parts of the 5G infrastructure are totally industrialized yet and there is no doubt the deployment of the technology will lead to economies of scale, better industrialization and more globally a better, more energy-efficient operation at a lower cost in the mid-term. But for these industrialization effects to happen, a market demand is necessary, the deployment of 5G infrastructure has to happen where it is not yet launched and to accelerate in other locations. In other words, in a typical snake biting its own tail phenomenon, the technology will improve with deployment, so it has to be deployed even when it is not fully mature.

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