Commissioners Vestager and Breton (pictured) have drawn up lengthy to-do list for the next EU Commission, hoping to make the bloc more competitive on the global telecoms stage.

Nick Wood

February 22, 2024

5 Min Read
source: european commission

They range from proposals designed to accelerate gigabit network deployment, to coordination on spectrum regulation, a single telecoms market, and the creation of the hallowed level playing field between the telco and cloud sectors.

They're all set out in a new white paper called "How to master Europe's digital infrastructure needs? [sic]"

It makes clear that it does not propose specific legislative action, but aims to spark a conversation by identifying the challenges that Europe faces, and offering suggestions for how to overcome them.

"Today, Europe is facing an issue of capacity. Our current infrastructure cannot sustain the skyrocketing amount of data that we are generating. Let alone what we will be generating in the future. Both us as citizens, as well as our industry. We need to increase capacity – and for this, we need more investments," said European Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager, in a speech that was also published online.

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Indeed, according to the EU, about €200 billion is needed.

"Also, the telco sector suffers from a fragmented marketplace," Vestager continued. "We have 27 national markets with different network architectures, different levels of network coverage, different national spectrum markets and management, and different regulations. This fragmentation is a missed economic opportunity. Only if we remove such differences, we will see the emergence of a single market for telco. And pan-European players will emerge and be able to reap the full benefits of economies of scale."

“Digital network infrastructures are key for a competitive and resilient Europe,” said Breton. “The White Paper we are presenting today is laying the foundations for a future Digital Networks Act focused on three pillars: investment, regulatory framework, and security. We need to create a level playing field for a true Digital Single Market to unlock the investment needed to build the digital network infrastructures of tomorrow.”

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The white paper urges lawmakers to consider a range of measures to tackle all these complex issues.

Oddly enough, the first recommendation doesn't tackle these structural issues, but instead proposes the creation of a connected collaborative computing network – a so-called '3C Network' – of integrated telco cloud and edge infrastructure. This would underpin the development of innovative technologies and applications covering numerous use cases, the Commission said.

The rest of the recommendations are more on point.

For instance, it also proposes speeding up the copper network switch-off by 2030, noting that progress varies significantly by Member State. According to the EU, 16 have announced plans to decommission ageing networks, while 10 have actually started doing it.

The rest of the white paper concerns itself with proposals designed to realise the EU's vision of a single telecoms market, a market with harmonised regulations, where a smaller number of massive pan-European telcos operate their networks and offer their services seamlessly across multiple countries, giving them the scale they need to pour billions into infrastructure.

Forget the fact that telcos have made clear they would rather pursue in-market consolidation – the EU said this week it has no plans for the time being to make that any easier.

In line with its vision, the white paper suggests overhauling the current process of spectrum allocation by individual Member States by implementing spectrum governance at a European level. Vestager said this "would allow for greater harmonisation of spectrum authorisation processes across countries," and "would create the conditions for operators to get larger investment capacity, and scale their businesses across markets."

Telecoms.com touched on the practical difficulties of implementing such changes earlier this week.

The white paper also acknowledges the cloudification of telco networks, and considers whether telcos still need to be regulated as such, or whether they should be subject to the same rules as the hyperscalers whose services increasingly overlap with their own. Telcos have for years been calling for Web-based comms providers and big tech to play by the same rules as telcos, so this particular idea will doubtless go down well with them.

European telco lobby group ETNO was full of praise for the general tone of the white paper.

"We share the view that supporting this diverse ecosystem requires a step change in investment levels, which must be enabled by a reform of EU rules and policies," it said in a statement. "With the transition to gigabit infrastructures, 5G, cloud-defined networks and AI-automation, Europe's telecom and competition policy needs a paradigm shift in light of the new market and technology reality."

ETNO welcomed the "clear recognition of scale" as an important enabler of investment.

"We also agree with the need of taking stock of the role and responsibilities of tech companies in the connectivity value-chain, especially in light of current asymmetries in regulation and market power," it said.

However, it's also worth considering that for Vestager, Breton, and their Commission colleagues, the white paper reads like a compendium of work left undone.

A lot of these challenges and structural issues existed at the beginning of their tenures and still need tackling now that the sun is beginning to set on them.

"It is largely old wine in new bottles combined with a number of initiatives the EU should have implemented over 10 years ago," said John Strand, CEO of Strand Consult, in an email to Telecoms.com.

"It looks like a nice farewell greeting from the current Commission, which admits that the problems that existed when Thierry Breton and Margrethe Vestager became Commissioners are still there, and they have actually grown in the intervening period," he continued.

"This in a market that has become more complex ([due to] the introduction of cloud computing, AI, etc.) and where American and Chinese companies increasingly dominate the market. The sins committed when the market was not so complex do not make it easier and cheaper to solve problems today and in the future."

Meanwhile the Commission also wants to get to grips with the security and resilience of submarine cable infrastructure. Alongside the white paper, it has also published a set of recommendations for a coordinated approach to protecting submarine cables, unlocking funding for them, and easing their deployment.

To get the ball rolling on all of its big ideas, the Commission has launched a public consultation, giving industry players an opportunity to weigh in on them. They have until 30 June to make their feelings known.

By then, the next European elections will have taken place, paving the way for a new Commission to be in place some time next year.

Depending on the outcome of those elections, the newly-appointed Commissioners could have their own, very different ideas for how to shake up the European telco sector.

You can also hear this discussed in our most recent podcast.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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