Connectivity is key to everything in the Digital Single Market (DSM).
That is not yet the case in all EU countries, especially not in remote rural areas. We had a lot of work to do, and we started by getting rid of the obvious barriers to people getting online.
Firstly, by making sure people could access an open internet and by abolishing unacceptable traffic management practices from service providers. In other words, ensuring net neutrality.
This law agreed by the EU in 2015 is a major DSM achievement.
Its principle is fundamental: internet providers must treat all legal traffic equally. No interference or discrimination, no blocking, throttling or prioritisation. The same provisions apply across Europe.
Getting rid of roaming surcharges was a major breakthrough. It took many years of painstaking negotiations, also a lot of pain for consumers. But the benefits are clear to see.
Europeans can now use their mobile phones - calls, SMS and data - when they travel in other EU countries and not face an extra bill.
This has removed an expensive frustration for millions of people who were used to switching off their data roaming while travelling as a way to cut down on their mobile use.
The new rules, called Roam Like At Home, had an immediate effect when they came into force in June 2017.
According to EU telecom market regulator BEREC, data roaming traffic multiplied by 43 times from the January-September period in 2014 to the equivalent period in 2018.
The other main barrier to connectivity in Europe is more physical: to have enough quality network infrastructure to support rising demand for online access and services, especially as we prepare for the roll-out of 5G.
Basic connectivity is no longer enough, and certainly not for a thriving data-based economy.
People justifiably want better online performance and quality - and Europe needs high-performance connectivity for consumer services, industry digitisation and big data, as well as 5G for emerging technologies like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.
Time to update the rules
That is why the Commission proposed a telecoms reform to facilitate the roll-out of very high capacity fixed networks.
We set targets to upgrade networks everywhere, including in remote areas; provide coverage to everyone and everywhere in Europe, faster and better; and ensure full connectivity while on the move.
By 2025, all European households, rural or urban, should have access to connectivity offering a download speed of at least 100 Mbps which can be upgraded to 1 Gbps.
All schools, universities, research centres, transport hubs and main providers of public services such as hospitals and administrations should have 1 Gbps connections, also by 2025.
When we set out the targets, our analysis showed that at least €500 billion in investments would be needed to realise them. If we continued with the old rules, there would be an investment gap of €155 billion.
So the rules had to change.
The EU’s new Telecoms Code achieves this with strong incentives for all investors to create and deploy these networks.
It makes rules for co-investment more predictable, creating an environment where they can share overall costs, reduce risks and overcome barriers of scale.
Thanks to the DSM, Europe now has a stable legal environment for its telecoms sector, friendly to both investment and competition.
In terms of network coverage, the situation has improved substantially in the last few years.
With broadband, next generation access (NGA) – at least 30 Mbps - covers 83% of homes in the EU, up from 67% in 2014. Today, 60% of EU homes have access to at least one of the faster technologies, at least 100 Mbps. Subscriptions to broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps and higher rose by nearly 4 times between 2014 and 2018.
Rural areas still pose a challenge, however: while 4G mobile broadband coverage shot up from 28% in 2014 to 96% in 2018, only 53% of rural EU homes had NGA broadband coverage in 2018, although that is still an improvement from 26% in 2014.
Preparing for Europe’s 5G future
The DSM places a strong focus on getting EU countries ready for 5G.
It sets a coverage target of at least one major city per EU country by 2020. By 2025, uninterrupted 5G should be available in all urban areas as well as major roads and railways.
5G is not only about more speed and bandwidth for mobile; it is about building the communication platform to power the digital revolution.
5G networks are different and more demanding than what has gone before.
They require significant new investment in infrastructure, equipment and in spectrum: the essential raw material for wireless communications and a cornerstone of 5G.
Full EU-wide deployment of 5G requires timely availability of spectrum in the right bandwidths, coordinated and properly managed.
The new Code sets rules for greater predictability and EU coordination of assigning spectrum. This followed the first move made under the DSM to tackle tackling Europe's disparate and diverse spectrum landscape, which was to align basic rules for allocating new spectrum within the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband services.
The Code ensures that the pioneer spectrum bands - 26 GHz and 3.6 GHz, as well as 700 MHz - will be available at the same time, all over Europe in the same technical conditions.
Making spectrum available throughout the DSM is how Europe can make its 5G vision a reality. And that is what we are doing.
Better and easier access to public services
Quality connections are essential for streamlining public administrations as they turn increasingly digital – all part of creating a digital society to help both people and companies.
The initiative to create a Single Digital Gateway is a good example. It will facilitate online access to the information, administrative procedures and assistance services that people and businesses need to get active in another EU country.
By the end of 2020, those making this move will easily be able to find out what rules and assistance services apply in their new residency. By the end of 2023 at the latest, they will be able to carry out 21 significant procedures in all EU countries with no paperwork involved - like registering a car or claiming pension benefits.
This should help to companies save more than €11 billion per year, and individuals up to 855,000 hours of their time annually. It should incentivise more national e-government strategies to offer modern and efficient public services across the EU.