Wanted: Spectrum on time

How a lack of timely and harmonised 5G spectrum assignments is undermining the Single Market and Europe’s competitiveness.


A photo of Pekka Lundmark

Pekka Lundmark





5G technology creates an opportunity for a step-change in connectivity for consumers, businesses and enterprises. Industrial productivity, in particular, will benefit from high capacity, low latency and reliable 5G-enabled digitalization. However, in Europe the deployment of this state-of-the-art telecom infrastructure has been hindered by regulatory obstacles, including delays in releasing new 5G spectrum and sometimes complex, bureaucratic installation regimes. This is undermining the Single Market and slowing the EU’s digital development, at a time 5G rollout is advancing apace in other trade blocs.

While the EU has stated ambitions to lead in 5G, it has fallen behind other economies in its rollout. In 2016, the European Commission published a strategic document, its 5G Action Plan, which laid out many useful ideas. These included proposals for 5G pioneer spectrum bands, the bands that are most likely to be used for initial 5G deployments in Europe.

Three pioneer bands were chosen: 700 MHz for 5G EU wide coverage (for instance along highways); 3.4-3.8 GHz for superior 5G performance (urban and densely populated areas); and 26 GHz for 5G peak performance (traffic hotspots like stadiums). The Action Plan set clear targets to the EU Member States to make these bands available by the end of 2020.

The technical harmonisation in the pan-European regulatory groups was completed on time for all three pioneer bands. However, the European 5G observatory – which monitors 5G market developments and preparatory actions taken by industry stakeholders and Member States – found that only Finland assigned and made available 100% of all three pioneer bands by the end of 2020, while, seven European Member States had not yet assigned any 5G spectrum. Fortunately, momentum on spectrum assignments has increased in 2021. At the end of June 2021, 15 EU countries had assigned 5G spectrum in the 700MHz band, 20 EU countries in the 3.4-3.8 MHz band and 5 EU countries in the 26 GHz band.

Towards the “4th Industrial Revolution”
Advancing digitalisation is critical for Europe’s competitiveness, as highlighted in the European Commission’s flagship Digital Compass package and the recently revised Industrial Strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the value of digitalising companies to be more agile, highly automated and flexible. As an example, leading aircraft services provider Lufthansa Technik has recently brought Nokia 5G private wireless networking into full-time commercial deployment at its facility in Hamburg. Despite pandemic-related travel restrictions, 5G networking has enabled Lufthansa Technik to provide virtual engine parts inspection for its global civil aviation customers over fast, high-definition video links, allowing customers to remotely attend engine parts inspections and to communicate in real time with engine mechanics performing maintenance work, without the need to travel to its Hamburg facility.

More cooperation, better enforcement
This example provides a taste of the promise of 5G and digitalisation and suggest what the EU’s “4th Industrial Revolution” could look like. But for now, the EU is falling behind in its 5G rollout, and the current, scattered services are still far from resembling a single European market in 5G.

We must learn from this. More coordination among Member States on spectrum assignments and assignment conditions and better enforcement, supported by the European Commission, would help incentivise investment. If the current divergent national approaches to spectrum policy go unaddressed, also towards the upcoming 6G technology, the EU’s economy and society won’t be able to timely exploit new innovations promised by the newest wireless connectivity technologies that will be vital for digital and green transitions.

The European 5G observatory found that only Finland assigned and made available 100% of all three pioneer bands by the end of 2020, while seven European Member States had not yet assigned any 5G spectrum.

While 5G spectrum assignments in Europe have finally accelerated, the initial delays in spectrum assignments and in rolling out 5G services have had a wider effect on innovation. For instance, they have had a lag effect on the introduction of new services along the entire European value chain, causing delays to companies’ digitalisation.


Improve coordination among Member States on spectrum assignments and assignment conditions.

People icon


Goods icon


Services icon


Capital icon