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EU telecom CEOs sound alarms over industry regulation, 5G future

Telecom operators have long complained about Europe's telecommunications policies and what they view as an uneven playing field with U.S. and Asian tech companies who offer services such as messaging and voice but have fewer regulations.

In an Oct. 15 statement published by lobby group European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, operators such as Deutsche Telekom AG, Telefónica SA, Orange SA and Telecom Italia SpA called for an "innovation and investment-friendly approach" to regulation. Such a stance, they said, would help support the commercialization of European operators' annual investment in networks, which has reached more than €47 billion.

"Fiber and 5G are of strategic importance for Europe. We are prepared to deliver, but the network business needs to be self-sustaining," Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges said, adding that a joint effort by the industry, policymakers and regulators would enable a faster rollout.

An agreement, which ETNO called a "missed opportunity," was reached this year between the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to update the region's telecom rules by adopting a new European Electronic Communications Code, or EECC. The proposals include a pledge to ensure the availability of 5G spectrum by end of 2020 in the EU. ETNO argued, however, that it would only add further "complexity to an already burdensome system."

Operators are now calling for changes to the EECC to prioritize "massive network investment" by implementing license conditions and prices aimed at encouraging long-term growth. Otherwise, they say they are at risk of falling behind their global peers. For instance, it took three years for the European Union to catch up with the U.S. in 4G deployment.

"A new industrial policy favoring a regulatory shift on network deployment and a level playing field on digital services is key to keeping Europe in the race with the [U.S.] and China," Orange CEO Stéphane Richard said. In a tweet, he called for a "less naive and more pro-business" environment.

Comparing the global prospects for 5G, research from CCS Insight shows Europe is trailing its international peers. The firm estimates that China will pass 100 million connections in 2021 before amassing 1 billion connections in 2025, while Western Europe is only likely to hit the 100 million mark by early 2023.

Additional data compiled by Swedish communications giant Ericsson also shows Western Europe is behind global operators. By 2022, the company projects that just 5% of mobile subscriptions in Europe will be 5G, compared to 10% of subscriptions in the Asia-Pacific region and 25% in North America.