5G: why Europe’s delay is worrying

“5G is for watching porn on your phone, even when you’re in the elevator, in HD.” The provocative projection that Eric Piolle, mayor of Grenoble, had launched at the end of 2020, when France allocated its 5G frequencies, shows it bluntly: many politicians in European Union countries do not understand the challenges of this new mobile network. And this can be seen both in their speeches and on the territory.

Europe is, in fact, in the process of falling significantly behind the Middle Kingdom. “In China, 30% of customers of a mobile offer have a 5G plan: this is twice as many as in Europe”, confirms Neil Mawston, executive director of Strategy Analytics. I have to say that our 112,000 5G antennas pale in comparison to the million erected in China. The gap is even more glaring if we turn to South Korea. This technological haven has 50% more than the EU, while its population is eight times smaller!

Results ? “Most member states risk not meeting the deadlines” is alarmed by the European Court of Auditors (CEC). Only 11 Member States should offer uninterrupted 5G coverage of urban areas and major transport routes by 2025. In this list, France shows a mixed record: it is well on its way to meeting its deployment objectives, alas, its fabric economy is slow to exploit the potential of 5G. “However, the upheaval it brings is not being able to watch Netflix in ’18K’!, explains with a smile Paul Pinault, head of Industrial IoT strategy at Braincube. It is the transformation of companies that she permits.” Starting with those of a strategic sector: industry.

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A strategic mobile network for European industry

Machines can now manage certain complex tasks independently. Robots pick up and skillfully move heavy loads. Artificial intelligence-enhanced cameras can monitor product compliance. But to make a ballet of intelligent machines dance harmoniously, you need wireless connectivity that is much more efficient than current options.

First, it is crucial that the delay between sending data and receiving it is extremely low. A lag between an action on the keyboard and its transcription on the screen is annoying when playing a video game. But if they are autonomous shuttles, the consequences can be much more dangerous. Where 4G capped at 10 milliseconds, 5G fortunately changes the situation, with an imperceptible latency time of 1 millisecond. It also has the advantage of offering tremendous speeds (up to 1 gigabit per second in reception and 300 megabits per second in transmission), which will be essential for ultra-connected factories, where machines loaded with sensors will exchange continuous information.

Finally, 5G supports unprecedented device density (1 million per square kilometer, ten times more than 4G) and offers the option of dividing the network into slices (the network slicing). A formidably effective technique to avoid “traffic jams” and guarantee that the slices allocated to critical devices (in health, in industry, etc.) are protected from possible slowdowns on the network.

All this allows manufacturers to consider using many more mobile robots and intelligent vehicles on site. “Mine operators can, for example, use 5G trucks to move materials from one point to another in an automated way”, highlighted Huawei at MWC 2022, the high mass which brings together, each year, the gratin smartphone manufacturers and telecom pros. Employees will be able to perform complex IT tasks while moving around the site. At the port of Le Havre connected to 5G by Orange, we are testing smart glasses that allow a technician to be assisted by a remote expert. And on the Stellantis chains, Firecell is experimenting with the monitoring of connected tools (screwdriver, etc.) in order to identify defects earlier in the process.

“A manager in China will take three times less time to send a file than a European”

These transformations will make 5G factories more competitive. But even on the more trivial tasks, this network will widen the gap between companies. “A manager in China will take three times less time to send a file than a European”, points out Neil Mawston. In the defense of the Europeans, the market of the Twenty-Seven is complex to work. “The United States has already wiped the slate clean of 2G and 3G. This leaves more room for 5G. In some countries like France, we still have them, because there were long-term contracts with certain operators”, explains Pierre Marin, head of the Telecoms sector at Inetum.

In the past, each Member State has, moreover, allocated its frequency ranges differently (2G, 3G, etc.). They therefore do not all have the same ranges available. Where the Americans and the Chinese had only one choice to make, the Europeans, themselves, made auctions each on their side. A process delayed by the Covid, of which we are only just beginning to see the end. In France, the allocation was made at the end of 2020 and in some countries, it extended well into 2021.

Making the deployment of 5G profitable is also more difficult in Europe. “It’s closely linked to the volume of customers, but China and the United States have a huge domestic market,” explains Pierre Marin of Inetum. The EU has 447 million citizens, but the operators operate mainly on their national scale, which is smaller.

However, Europeans have been slow to grasp the strategic nature of 5G: the Chinese have put it at the heart of their technological policies for ages, and have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in it. Their flagship Huawei is undoubtedly the most advanced 5G equipment manufacturer in the world today. The EU also made the mistake of not setting specific guidelines. Admittedly, it calls for uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas by 2025, and in all populated areas by 2030. But it did not specify minimum throughput or maximum latency. Only Germany and Greece have taken the initiative to do so, although it is essential for certain sensitive uses (industrial automation, remote surgery, etc.).

Fortunately, things are starting to change: when the debate on the security of 5G networks emerged, the EU quickly adopted a toolbox which should help States to weave safe collaborations with equipment manufacturers. An important point because 5G relies a lot on software, which exposes it more to cyberattacks.

Helping companies create their own private 5G network

It is now necessary to pass the second, by informing industrialists about these uses and helping them to test them (Germany does this very well with its Fraunhofer applied research institutes). In France, it is also necessary to simplify the access of industries to frequencies, advocates the Herbert report. 5G makes it easy for companies to create a private network. “The problem is that you can only rent them within a perimeter of 100 square kilometers, which is too big, too expensive and can block neighboring businesses,” explains Paul Pinault of Braincube, a member of the mission’s working group. Industrial 5G.

To accelerate the deployment of antennas, funding will also be strategic. Help from states and European bodies will grease the wheels. But perhaps it will also be necessary to go through an increase in the price of subscriptions in certain countries. The prices of French operators are, for example, much lower than elsewhere. According to the French Telecoms Federation (FFT), the most competitive mobile offer is around 13 euros, compared to 19 in the United Kingdom, 47 in Germany and 63 euros in the United States.

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This is very positive for the digital inclusion of low-income people. But the fact that the entire population pays such low prices leaves less leeway for operators to modernize their network. As Arthur Dreyfus, president of the FFT, pointed out in August 2021, it is perhaps not normal that a product allowing you to do as many things (work, have fun) as a package costs… no more expensive than a pizza.



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5G: why Europe’s delay is worrying

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