EU consultation on future telecoms cools on having big tech pay for network builds

€1.5 trillion needed in the next five years – some to turf Huawei – and nobody's quite sure where to find it

The European Commission's consultation on the future of the bloc's telecoms sector has concluded, and revealed majority disinterest in the idea of making big tech pay to access networks.

Such access fees were up for discussion because of their introduction in South Korea. Euro-telcos have been lobbying for the fees on grounds that they bear the cost of building and operating the networks that consumers use to consume content services operated by outfits like Netflix and Google.

The network operators argue that big tech makes much bigger profits than telcos, but they can't profit without the networks. Therefore they should provide the cash needed to build the networks to meet ever-increasing demand.

The consultation paper [PDF] is the result of a questionnaire sent to stakeholders, rather than an indicator of the EU's final policies.

The document identifies a consensus that around €300 billion per year needs to be spent on network builds – for each of the next five years. The document reports that among respondents to the consultation, only large network operators think the fees are a good idea. Others feel they're unworkable – or likely to stymie innovation.

Daniel Friedlaender, the head of Europe's Computer & Communications Industry Association, hailed that as proving "that the vast majority of stakeholders agree: introducing network usage fees would be an unnecessary and damaging regulatory intrusion that is neither required nor justified."

He argued that network usage fees represent an attempt by carriers to have their network builds subsidized, and to grow their profits. He called on Europe to find other ways to speed network builds – starting with addressing the shortage of relevant talent.

The consultation paper suggests different actions, with the European Commission summarizing its opinion as: "Respondents consider that public funding is crucial to foster investments."

The Commission's summary of the consultation also found that creating a single 5G core network across the bloc is a commonly held ambition. Doing so "would result in benefits in the range of €200–300 million over the next five years." The consultation also found broad support for "a more harmonized approach to spectrum management" as that "would unlock larger market potential, making it easier to deploy cross-border services and driving investment and innovation."

That sort of bloc-wide investment, which takes advantage of the EU's economies of scale, is seen as "key to overcome investment difficulties."

Spectrum management also emerged as a security concern, with respondents suggesting that a bloc-wide approach "could improve coverage at our national border zones and considerably strengthen the EU in cases of harmful interference from third countries at our external borders."

Another of the EU's three main takeaways from the consultation was that "network virtualization, edge cloud, artificial intelligence and open networks are new technologies that will have a significant impact on the electronic communications sector."

Those technologies will usher in "software-based, highly programmable, cloud-native networks" that operate at gigabit speeds, and eventually petabits.

Another matter the paper considers is "replacement of high-risks vendors" – surely code for removing Huawei and ZTE from European networks. ®

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