Mobile World Congress 2023: Breton urges Europe to lead next tech ‘revolution’, amidst controversial EU telecoms funding consultation
EU industry commissioner Thierry Breton on Monday sought to shift attention away from the debate over who should pay for the bloc’s next-generation network infrastructure, instead urging attendees of Mobile World Congress to “focus on the future”.
“For me the real challenge is to make sure that by 2030 our fellow citizens and business on our streets across the EU – including here in Barcelona – have access to fast, reliable and data-intense Gigabit connectivity,” he a crowd at the opening of the world’s largest telecoms conference.
“Let’s stop looking at the world with the eyes of today, or looking at the rear mirror. Let’s focus on the future, where we want to be and the steps we need to take to get there,” he added.
The Commission last week launched a 12-week consultation positing several infrastructure funding options going forward, one of which could have the biggest “traffic generators”, such as Google, Facebook parent Meta or Netflix, paying what telcos call a “fair share”.
The proposal is expected to see resistance from tech companies and others, with the Dutch government on Monday warning against imposing an internet toll on tech firms, making it the first EU government to criticise the proposal.
The Netherlands said such a move could breach internet neutrality rules and mean higher prices for Europeans.
But Breton focused on the infrastructure transformation he said was necessary for Europe to be able to participate in the next tech “revolution”, which he characterised as “the Web 4.0 where everything is seamlessly interconnected“.
“Every time there has been a major technological revolution, Europe has been there, and this time, I want Europe to be there too,” he said.
“We simply cannot afford missing our chance to lead the technological revolution we are experiencing in the connectivity sector and to craft it as a European revolution.”
The consultation, he said, was “only part of the puzzle we have been putting together over the past few years”.
Opening speeches by the chief executives of Telefonica and Orange focused more squarely on the funding proposals, with Telefonica chief Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete saying telcos must get a “fair share” from those generating the most traffic on their networks.
Orange chief Christel Heydemann similarly called for “fair play rules”, which she said started with “acknowledging the unbalanced situation today”.
‘Stakes too high’
She urged lawmakers to “recognise that the telco industry has been one of the greatest contributors to our economies” and to help bring in a “proper funding framework”.
The consultation was a “first step” towards an “open but fair” future, she said.
David Frautschy, director at US nonprofit advocacy group Internet Society, was another to push back against the proposal, arguing it “would violate net neutrality provisions and fragment the internet, hurting European consumers and economies”.
“The stakes are too high to let telecom operators get their way,” he said.