The European Court of Auditors has warned that the EU is falling behind on its goals for 5G networks. In a special report on the 5G roll-out, the court found that few countries would be likely to meet the goal of 5G across all urban areas and transport routes in 2025. Furthermore, the EU states are taking different views on security for the new networks, raising the potential for cross-border risks, the court warned.

The ECA checks the EU’s finances and vets policies to help the European Commission improve outcomes. Its report underlines the importance of 5G to the European economy, with an estimated contribution of up to EUR 1 trillion in GDP in 2021-25. The cost of rolling out 5G is expected to reach up to EUR 400 billion by 2025. 

In its 2016 Action Plan, the European Commission set a deadline of 2025 for 5G to be rolled out across all urban areas and major transport routes. In March 2021, it set a further target of achieving EU-wide 5G coverage by 2030. However, the auditors found that only half of the EU states have included those objectives in their national 5G strategies. 

Furthermore, while the Commission has supported member states in reaching these goals through different initiatives, guidance and funding, it has never clearly defined the expected quality of 5G services. This could lead to inequalities in access to and the quality of 5G services across the EU, further widening the digital
divide, the auditors said.

All the EU states except Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal met the 2020 intermediary objective of having at least one major city with 5G access. Progress is otherwise slow in many countries. The Commission considers that for sixteen EU countries, the likelihood of achieving the 2025 goal is at best medium (Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia), and at worst low (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Greece). 

By November 2021, 23 EU states had still not transposed the directive setting deadlines for the assignment of 5G pioneer bands, among other actions. At the current pace of implementation, the “EU objectives for the current decade are very likely to be missed,” according to the report. 

Cross-border security

The report also looks at the implementation of the so-called ‘tool box’ of security measures for 5G networks issued by the European Commission. The auditors found that in practice, as measures in the tool box have no binding effect, the EU states apply divergent approaches regarding the use of equipment from specific vendors or the scope of restrictions on high-risk vendors. These measures also came too late for some network operators and with little transitional support, to address existing equipment from risky vendors. 

The lack of compatibility in the 5G security rules makes it difficult for the EU countries to work together on the issue in future, or for the Commission to propose further measures. Furthermore, it has not addressed the potential risk to cross-border security if one country uses 6G equipment considered risky in another EU state, the court said.

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