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European Commission sets out plans for future connectivity

The European Commission has set out plans to improve telecommunications and digital infrastructure across the bloc in the coming years, starting with the next legislative term.

Its connectivity packaging consists of a white paper on the EU’s future digital infrastructure needs and a recommendation document on improving the security and resilience of submarine cables.

The white paper describes potential scenarios and seeks input to shape future Commission policy on digital infrastructure. The document aims to prompt debate and invite stakeholders, such as EU member states, civil society and industry to comment on its findings.

The document lays the grounds for a future Digital Networks Act, which will address topics such as fibre deployment to replace existing copper cables, radio spectrum policy and secure communication infrastructure, taking advantage of innovations such as quantum computing. The Commission intends to consult on its proposals, the results of which will help shape the development of the Digital Networks Act.

Telecoms expert Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons said: “It will be interesting to see how telcos and markets react to the paper, given the challenges facing the sector”.

“With the rise of AI, ‘always on’ connections and the proliferation of newly-connected smart devices such as cars, watches and home appliances, the demands on European telecoms providers’ networks are only increasing,” she said. “However, as the white paper points out, up to now this increase in demand has only been matched by low investment, poor connectivity in rural areas, and spectrum policy fragmentation throughout the EU.”

“Given the EU’s target for all broadband users to be covered by a gigabit network and all populated areas to be covered by wireless networks achieving at least 5G speeds by 2030, it remains to be seen whether the proposals will help to meet the EU’s future connectivity needs,” she added.

The proposals in the paper are built around three ‘pillars’. First, the Commission proposes to establish a coordinated approach to the development of integrated connectivity and computing infrastructures, for example by bringing together different segments of the connectivity value chain in large-scale pilot programmes, then to build out the Digital Single Market by applying ‘country of origin’ principles to the regulatory framework and by coordinating spectrum allocation, among other things. The final ‘pillar’ is to ensure the security and resilience of networks, for example by employing quantum cryptography and mitigating the inherent vulnerabilities of submarine cables.

With this in mind, the Commission has also published a separate recommendation document on boosting the security and resilience of submarine cable networks at EU level. Its proposals involve establishing an expert group to facilitate information exchange, collaboration for mapping current infrastructure, identifying weaknesses and interdependencies, and preparing a comprehensive evaluation of the status of these networks across the EU.

Individual member states will be responsible for the security of the infrastructure, ensuring the security of data in transit, and performing routine stress tests and expedited protocols for the construction and maintenance of cables.

Mullenex said that successful delivery of the proposals would require coordinated efforts by national governments, and may lead to consolidation among some of the major telecoms providers.

“EU commissioner Thierry Breton, who is tasked with guaranteeing the smooth functioning of the single market among other things, has argued for the removal of obstacles to cross-border mergers in the telecoms sector in order to tackle supply-side fragmentation and boost financing and investment,” she said. “Meanwhile, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust commissioner, recently pushed back against criticism from telcos that the EU’s overly-restrictive merger rules hinder their deals, saying that the problem instead lies with the patchwork of 27 different national regulatory frameworks throughout the EU.”

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