The emergence of 5G in the tech world has been one of the factors fueling digital transformation globally. Achieving a far-reaching digital transformation can no longer be attained using the 4G network, as 5G is now a standard that offers a much higher data transmission capacity and speed. These services are crucial for a wide range of innovative applications which have the potential to transform many sectors of our economies.
Given these benefits, 5G adoption has witnessed a steadily growing adoption across major global markets but has not experienced the same level of growth in Europe. This slow pace of adoption calls for concern as the continent is on the verge of facing a disappointing outing in its 2030 Digital Decade goals.
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A 2022 report by GSMA, a global organization unifying the mobile ecosystem to discover, develop and deliver innovation in business environments, indicates that at the end of June 2022, 108 operators in 34 markets across Europe had launched commercial 5G services, with consumer take-up continuing to grow steadily at 6% of the mobile customer base. The report also indicated that Norway leads in the adoption of the technology, with 16% now using 5G, but positive momentum is also evident in Switzerland, Finland, the U.K. and Germany.
The GSMA report predicts that by 2025, the average adoption of 5G across Europe will hit 44%, with the U.K. and Germany expected to have the highest 5G adoption rates in Europe at 61% and 59% respectively. These numbers do not measure up with the 5G rollout in other large world economies, as South Korea is expected to hit 73% in the same period, while Japan and the U.S. are likely to achieve 68% adoption.
5G and Europe’s path to Digital Decade
The European Commission’s Digital Decade contains a framework that is expected to pull Europe through the digital transformation trajectory by 2030. The commission’s strategy would be to deliver tangible benefits for EU economies through developing digital skills, digital transformation of businesses, sustainable digital infrastructures and the digitalization of public services. The commission’s framework also notes multi-country, large-scale projects that would contribute to achieving the digital decade targets.
Some of the technology areas for these projects identified by the commission include pan-European deployment of 5G, common data infrastructure and services, and secure quantum infrastructures and networks for cybersecurity centers. Although the European Digital Decade framework does not hope to rely only on 5G to deliver its digital transformation goals by 2030, insufficient 5G coverage across the continent seems to be the major impediment to achieving the goals.
According to GSMA, the unhurried rollout of 5G across Europe remains a threat to Europe’s Digital Decade goals. The Digital Decade is Europe’s road map to achieving digital transformation by 2030 through next-generation technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, cloud, edge, chips and IoT. With the Digital Decade program already in action, the EU hopes to pursue a human-centric, sustainable vision for digital society to empower citizens and businesses.
As lofty as the European Digital Decade program seems to appear, GSMA argues that the pace of 5G coverage expansion across Europe will be critical to achieving Europe’s Digital Decade goals. While 5G network coverage in Europe is expected to grow from 47% in 2021 to 70% in 2025, about a third of the population will remain without 5G coverage. This compares to 2% or less in South Korea and the U.S.
“Europe is adopting 5G faster than ever before, but greater focus on creating the right market conditions for infrastructure investment is needed to keep pace with other world markets,” explained Daniel Pataki, vice president for policy & regulation and head of Europe at GSMA. “This should include the implementation of the principle of fair contribution to network costs.”
Although the GSMA report suggests a slower-than-required pace in the 5G rollout in Europe, there are a few other positives in the 5G market for European countries. For instance, the GSMA report captured some improvements in European broadband operators’ progress with the rollout of standalone 5G networks. It noted that 5G SA services in Europe are now available in Finland, Germany and Italy, and further deployments are expected in the next few years.
The delay in the rollout of 5G among European countries
A 2022 EU special report on 5G rollout in Europe revealed delays in Member States’ rollout of 5G networks across the continent. The EU report pointed out that by the end of 2020, 23 member states had launched commercial 5G services and achieved the intermediate objective of at least one major city with 5G access.
However, not all member states refer to the EU’s 2025 and 2030 objectives in their national 5G strategies or broadband plans. In several EU countries, the European Electronic Communications Code has not been set into national law. Consequently, the assignment of the 5G spectrum has been delayed.
The special report suggested that these delays in assigning the spectrum can be attributed to different reasons: Cross-border coordination issues with non-EU countries along the eastern borders, a weak demand by mobile network operators, the impact of COVID-19 on the auction schedules and uncertainty about how to deal with 5G security issues. The more that European countries lag behind on 5G implementation, the more they will fall short of achieving the EU Digital Decade vision.