The videoconference call is cancelled due to “technical difficulties”, running your small business from home is impossible due to patchy network access, and a planned movie night is slowed down by Netflix buffering every few minutes.
Most of us will be familiar with one or more of these scenarios deriving from poor, unreliable or costly digital connectivity.
65% of European citizens currently have access to fast next-generation broadband, but this drops to 25% in rural areas. 79% have access to 4G mobile broadband. At the very least, such limitations on our ability to stay connected are a source of irritation; at worst, they are a serious hindrance to economic prosperity and consumer welfare.
At IFA, the global trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances taking place in Berlin this week, Commissioner for the Digital Economy Günther Oettinger is expected to describe in more detail the Commission’s plans to reform the telecoms framework. And later this month, the European Commission will launch a broad public consultation about how best to go about this reform.
The rapid pace of recent technological change has been driven by 21st century consumers’ demand for new, more convenient ways to get online and get involved. And as the availability and scale of digital content and services has skyrocketed, even greater innovation has emerged. Digital transformation opens up unparalleled opportunities for European economic growth and social progress.
But economic opportunity both needs and breeds accessible, affordable and ubiquitous connectivity. This is a non-negotiable requisite for the success of Europe’s Digital Single Market.
Successfully delivering seamless connectivity for all in Europe will depend on any new rules being harmonized, flexible, and above all, focused on the long-term. Looking beyond 2020 – the EU’s target date for achieving a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy – is crucial.
New rules need to be practical and consistent across all 28 member states. It’s also vital that they are principles-based and technology-neutral, so that they form an enduring foundation for Europe’s digital transformation.
Overall, the Digital Single Market should create a competitive environment by giving more players access to finite spectrum resources, using alternative solutions such as shared spectrum. This is particularly sensible in rural areas where, for operators, infrastructure investments in fixed networks are too costly and promise little return.
One of these alternative solutions is the use of unlicensed spectrum for wireless connectivity through TV white space technology (TVWS). In Kenya, Microsoft has partnered with local communities to provide new Wi-Fi capabilities to rural areas through TVWS, creating immense opportunities for citizens and small businesses. As Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella was told during his visit to the country: “The Internet changes how you can run yourself as a community. If you’re not connected, you’re on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
The benefits of TVWS can be found on our doorstep also. Recently, Microsoft helped put the technology to the test by successfully streaming live coverage of the TweedLove Enduro World Series mountain biking tournament from the remote, poorly connected Glentress forest in Scotland. This proved once more how new connectivity solutions can broaden internet inclusivity, wherever you may be.
As the Commission considers how best to move forward with making sure everyone can get online, it should be sensitive to the context and nature of the telecoms market. Telecoms regulation and policy should reflect the reality that the telecoms ecosystem is multi-layered, with access networks on one level and downstream services and content (the content and application (CAP) layer) on another.
While some pit these against one another, the reality is that the demand for both layers is closely linked. As the digital economy grows and innovation encourages apps and online services to offer an increasing range of services, consumers and businesses will demand ever faster speeds and ever greater data connections. The Internet of Things, for instance, will be a substantial driver of demand for access network infrastructure. This growth of the CAP layer will spark a virtuous cycle of ever-expanding investment in the access network layer, which will in turn stimulate and enable new CAP services.
Recognizing this independent, yet interlinked, relationship between networks on the one hand, and services, applications and content on the other is essential.
With the growth of the digital economy in full swing, consumer and business expectations will only continue to intensify. To keep up with demand, and keep European growth and prosperity on track, European policymakers will need to be bold, innovative and ambitious in the months and years ahead.
Read Microsoft’s full response to the European Commission’s proposed Digital Single Market strategy here.