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Webinar report - Connectivity 5G: can EU make the most out of it?

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ITALIAN VERSION

On February 19th, the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) held the Hearing “Connectivity of the digital future”, with the aim to explore both opportunities and uncertainties associated with this new technology.

WHY A HEARING ON 5G?

The 5G networks are the next generation of mobile internet connectivity: this new technology will offer faster speed and more reliable connections on several devices (such as smartphones) than ever before.

Nonetheless, as MEP Pilar del Castillo Vera stated in the very beginning of the Hearing, the EU could not bear alone the significant investments (500-600 billion €) to build the infrastructure needed to make the most out of the 5G connectivity. To overcome these difficulties, the experts in the Hearing suggested to coordinate with private players so that they could bring in know-how and private funds.

This situation is worsened by the peculiarity of EU territory: as pointed out by Public Policy Manager Daniel Gueorguiev, while South Korea has managed to cover the 60% of the country with 5G connectivity thanks to its limited vastness and the high population density,  the European Union only managed to cover 28% of its territory, with 2/3 of EU countries below average. In fact, over 50% of EU territory is rural; this means that the low population density in these areas discourages the required investments to bring 5G connectivity, due to the absence of economies of density and, consequently, to the higher costs.       
Moreover, the South Korean government has managed to implement efficient public policies, deciding to collaborate with private players to make the most out of their know-how and to create together the needed infrastructures, using a significant amount of private funds in doing so.

PROS AND CONS ABOUT 5G     

During the course of the Hearing, renowned experts detailed the main opportunities and issues of 5G networks; among them Antonio Capone (Professor at University “Politecnico di Milano”), Stefano Agnelli (Director of European Institutional Affairs at Eutelsat) and Martin Börjesson (AI expert).    


Starting from the advantages, we could certainly report the rise of new services - made possible by the huge amount of data that this type of technology can convey at incredible high speed. Among others, its application in the health sector: in a situation of emergency, an ambulance could access the patient’s medical history, communicate in real time with the hospital and therefore increase  the survival rate. Moreover, 5G networks have the potential to reduce overall health costs in the EU:  thanks to cutting-edge devices, hospitals could remotely monitor patients conditions while these sensors would alert both hospitals and patients if the real-time vitals deviate or are unstable, and allow a fast response.

The same principle could be applied to other sectors, such as education: if wisely exploited, this technology could allow students to learn specific subjects or topics in a more interactive way and directly from their home (e.g. in the organization of interactive MOOCs or by helping students who have difficulties to reach the School or University due to the physical distance).

Furthermore, it is  possible to envisage the further positive implications::     

  • the creation process of smart cities will register a significant boost;
  • a greater digitalization and automation of industrial processes;
  • the efficiency of satellites will increase and consequently they could also integrate the 5G networks “on the ground” (e.g. in those rural areas where bringing this technology is too much expensive due to the absence of economies of density);
  • the process of massive data collection (and data mining) will upgrade, improving the quality of public policy-making.

This last aspect gives us the opportunity to explore the disadvantages of 5G: the boost of huge data collection, in fact, poses a vast security and privacy issue, yet to be solved.

Firstly, in order to access this high-speed network, a huge amount of our personal data will be collected and sent to third parts.        

Secondly, if more and more services will gravitate around 5G network, the impact of potential cybersecurity attacks will increase accordingly.

Thirdly, as many researchers and health professionals pointed out, the effects of the high frequency millimeter radio signals used by this technology on human health must be further tested (in fact a huge number of small cells will be installed in close proximity to people to exploit the high-speed Internet).

Finally, EU policy-makers must address the problem of the digital divide: the risk of investing mostly in density populated areas will create a gap between cities and rural zones, with a part of citizens that inevitably will be excluded from the rising new services.

THE “5G ACTION PLAN”

During the Hearing, it clearly emerged the necessity to carry on the tests on 5G, with the purpose of fully understand how to apply it to our lives - and, above all, how to reduce the related risks.

Not everyone knows that the European Commission is already making progress on this topic: its 5G Action Plan is currently financing 140 of these tests so that 5G can become a reality for all citizens and businesses by the end of this decade. Besides, the European 5G Observatory – launched in 2018 – constantly monitors the implementation on the Plan and shows us the main updates and breakthroughs on this technology.

CONCLUSION

Starting from this year, 5G will be commercialized but, as this Hearing pointed out, there are still many aspects to be assessed and possibly addressed while exploring the best ways to finance the needed infrastructures (probably through Public Private Partnerships) and while involving the expertise and the resources of the private sector.

What is clear is that EU cannot fill the gap with the leaders on 5G (South Korea, Japan and USA) just by repeating the same course of action; rather, the EU must understand that the best way to respond is to innovate, to experiment new possible applications in our lives, to stimulate intra-sectoral collaboration and to prepare the legislative ground to get the most out of this technology - while protecting at the same time the interests of the various stakeholders, and of citizens in particular

Elia Grassilli

Europe Direct Emilia Romagna