In exhorting Member State telecoms ministers to “keep up the pace” on deploying new 5G networks in a May 5th video conference, European Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager spoke both to the vital role of the telecoms networks in a pandemic-hit European Union but also to the fractured nature of the European markets she is charged with overseeing. While hundreds of millions of EU citizens now emerge from weeks of strict confinement orders, hopes for loosening border restrictions within the Schengen zone ride on whether the “contact tracing” mobile apps under development by different EU governments will work together effectively.
These questions over the interoperability of new tracing systems speak to broader issues that have faced the European telecoms sector for decades. The EU’s overnight, COVID-driven transition to a digitized economy revealed the resilience of a patchwork of European operators often seen as fragile in the face of global headwinds. Telework and e-learning went from being niche elements of European work and educational cultures to the backbone of whatever activity was able to continue while employees, students, and families were all confined.
At the same time, the problems that have arisen during that shift have cast a harsh light on persistent gaps in Europe’s digital transition. Those shortfalls leave the bloc ill-equipped to meet the challenge of enduring months, if not years, of restrictions on movement and economic activity – even if the Continent’s networks have collectively held in the face of crisis thus far.
Connectivity as a lifeline during confinement
Covid-19 is already driving Europe into 21st century’s second great economic crisis. According to Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, the EU as a whole is set for a 7.4% drop in GDP in 2020, with the Mediterranean member states most dependent on tourism – Spain, Greece, Croatia, and Italy – to be hit the hardest. Even so, the disease’s economic and psychological impact would have been far worse had it not been for the advances in connectivity over the past decade. While the vast majority of the 447 million people living in the EU found themselves either under confinement or strict social distancing requirements, broadband and mobile Internet services kept most of them connected to their families, neighbors, and the rest of the world.
Digital infrastructure, which European governments quickly recognized as one of their most essential assets in the fact of the crisis, has made it possible for tens of millions of people to continue working remotely and for government agencies to quickly move essential public services online. For some EU economies, this represents nothing less than a revolution. In Italy, for example, no more than 8% of employees and self-employed individuals teleworked even occasionally before the crisis.
Digital infrastructure has also made it possible for education to continue, with students and teachers using videoconferencing services in place of physical classrooms. As UNESCO points out, however, 826 million students worldwide do not have a computer at home; 706 million do not have Internet access. Developing countries are the worst impacted by this inequality of access, but students in the EU are not immune. In France alone, some 6.8 million people lack “minimal quality access” to the Internet. As the country moved its entire educational system online in mid-March, teachers as well as students found themselves hindered by both poor connections and unwieldy software. The transition proved especially problematic in already-underserved rural areas.
Europe’s poor starting position
Even for those best-served by the EU’s existing digital infrastructure, the long-term outlook is far from rosy. While the European Commission lauded streaming services for cutting their own bandwidth usage to ensure access, the hundreds of millions of workers and students trapped at home have nonetheless placed unprecedented strain on the EU’s fixed and mobile Internet networks. European providers have met this challenge, deploying exceptional measures in coordination with EU regulators in order to keep the continent’s data flowing. Moving forward, however, the prolonged realities of confinement will increasingly expose Europe’s technological disadvantages in relation to peers in Asia and North America.
As the Jacques Delors Institute put it in 2018, Europe is already a “digital laggard” in global terms. The preponderance of American software and digital tools, already one of the driving factors behind European pushes for “digital sovereignty” before the crisis, has become all too apparent under confinement. Within the European Commission itself, many officials continue to use the controversial American web conferencing tool Zoom to conduct official business, despite concerns over its security and official guidelines instructing them to use other services instead. The reason? As MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld put it, “other tools just work less well.”
That lag extends to hardware as well. While economic activity is now more reliant on fast and reliable connection speeds than ever, overall Internet speeds and mobile connectivity across Europe have been continually outpaced by Asian and North American markets. Average broadband Internet speeds in Singapore, for example, are the world’s fastest at 197.3 megabytes per second (Mbps) for downloads, while the United Arab Emirates boasts the fastest mobile connectivity at 83.5 Mbps. In Germany, by contrast, average speeds are less than half those of the world leaders: 94.7 Mbps for broadband and 37.3 Mbps for mobile.
As the pandemic weighs on the ability of European operators to expand their networks, those gaps between Europe and the rest of the world, and even between individual EU countries, will widen. Romania leads Europe with broadband download speeds of 151.6 Mbps, while the Netherlands has the EU’s fastest mobile connectivity at 72.1 Mbps. Italian Internet users, by contrast, rely on broadband speeds that are roughly a third of those in Romania and mobile speeds less than half those in the Netherlands, respectively.
Vice president Vestager’s plea to Europe’s telecoms ministers shows the Commission remains mindful of this disadvantage as it assesses its way forward. It is not yet clear, however, whether the Commission will be able to leverage these extraordinary circumstances to break through the deadlock on its plans for a more unified single digital market. Given that European policy responses to the crisis over the past two months have been overwhelmingly national in nature, it seems the European institutions have lost ground to make up for there as well.