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Connectivity Toolbox: Member states agree on best practices to boost timely deployment of 5G and fibre networks

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EU member states have agreed on a Union-wide Connectivity Toolbox, a report of best practices that they consider most efficient in rolling out fixed and mobile very high-capacity networks, including 5G. These include, for example, permit exemptions for certain civil works; a single online portal to make all necessary information on permits, civil works and infrastructure available; financial incentives in spectrum auctions for investments in networks; and measures that support wireless connectivity to enable the use of disruptive technologies and intelligent machinery in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. These best practices will help member states to ensure timely and investment-friendly access to 5G spectrum for mobile operators and other users of spectrum, including for cross-border industrial applications, for example in transport, energy, health care, or agriculture. They will also help operators to reduce the cost of gigabit broadband deployment.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “In the Digital Decade all Europeans should benefit from fast and secure connections. We must start today turning this ambition into a reality. The Connectivity Toolbox is the result of member states' co-operation and commitment to remove obstacles and boost the deployment of very fast networks.” 

The Connectivity Toolbox follows up on the Commission's Recommendation in September 2020 that called member states to boost investment in very high-capacity broadband connectivity infrastructure, including 5G, which is the most fundamental block of the digital transformation and an essential pillar of the recovery.

Earlier this month the Commission presented a Communication on Europe's Digital Decade that sets out the aim to connect all European households with gigabit speeds and to ensure 5G coverage for all populated areas in the EU as well as major transport routes. The Connectivity Toolbox builds upon the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive, which is currently under review, and on the European Electronic Communications Code. As a next step, member states should share with the Commission by 30 April 2021 their individual road maps to implement the Toolbox. More information is available here.

Huawei

EU must remain wary of Trojan horse Huawei

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A recent press release from Huawei has revealed that the company is deepening its partnership with Greek industrial conglomerate Mytilineos, agreeing to supply Huawei solar inverters to PV plants in the UK, Spain, Cyprus and beyond. The deal has already sparked concern among certain analysts and stakeholders that the partnership is simply a means of insinuating Huawei components into European countries’ critical energy infrastructure for the company’s own aims – and for those of the Chinese government, to which Huawei has extremely close ties, writes Louis Auge.

Whether that’s the intent behind this particular partnership with Mytilineos, the move has shed a spotlight on the fact that European policymakers have yet to fully address the question of whether sensitive Huawei equipment should be allowed a role in European renewable energy infrastructure. The Chinese firm has been hurt badly by US sanctions against its telecommunications operations and is banking on its solar power activities to emerge as a major breadwinner. The same security suspicions, however, persist in this new avenue of commerce – even if EU lawmakers have remained largely silent on the question up to this point.

Huawei an extension of the Chinese state?

One of the major concerns about Huawei is the company’s allegedly tight links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The firm has denied the connection on multiple occasions and insisted that it’s entirely “employee-owned”. Nevertheless, evidence continues to mount suggesting that Huawei and the powers-that-be in Beijing are closer than they profess to be. Two American researchers carried out an April 2019 investigation into Huawei’s ownership arrangement and concluded that the business had been misleading about its ownership. In the wake of the report, Huawei went into damage control mode—but a 90-minute interview given by the chief secretary of Huawei’s board of directors gave an unsatisfying explanation of the situation.

Indeed, that controversy-defusing PR stunt did not quite have the intended effect. The same researchers carried out a follow-up study three months later, analyzing over 25,000 resumes of past and present Huawei employees and finding “troubling” links to Chinese military and intelligence agencies in the process. Meanwhile, a British parliamentary enquiry also uncovered evidence of “collusion” between Huawei and the Chinese government, validating the suspicions that have led many European governments to follow Washington’s lead in blocking Huawei from large swaths of their telecommunications networks, including 5G infrastructure.

Solar-powered survival strategy

The US has taken a particularly hostile stance on Huawei above and beyond the telecoms industry, with 10 bipartisan senators sending a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in December 2019 outlining their concerns about allowing Huawei technology to gain an important foothold in the renewables market. The lawmakers’ concerns followed a similar missive in February of the same year, which was sent to the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, with President Trump making moves to sideline the company as a result. Huawei responded by announcing a total shutdown of its solar operations in the States in June 2019, citing an “unwelcome climate”.

Despite pulling out of the US solar sector, Huawei still has significant designs on the sector in other countries. Shut out of the 5G market in much of the world and suffering from American sanctions which have crippled its access to the high-tech chips it needs to build smartphones and other products, Huawei is hoping that the ever-expanding renewable energy sector can give its business a boost. Given that the Chinese firm commands 22% of the global market for the solar inverters that are an essential part of any PV system, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it wishes to cement its place as a leading name away from the States – for example, in Europe and beyond.

Brussels must be proactive

The memorandum of cooperation with Mytilineos is testament to that ambition – but critics worry that business success isn’t the only target in Huawei’s crosshairs. The fact that Mytilineos and its subsidiaries already have a number of agreements to supply PV projects to European countries means that those nations may now unwittingly be embedding Huawei technology into their renewable infrastructure which could allow Beijing a backdoor into their energy grids.

It’s not difficult to envision the problems which this could cause, given China’s long history of industrial espionage. What’s more, a widespread blackout which swept across Mumbai last October—ostensibly a warning from Beijing over skirmishes on the Sino-Indian border—has raised concerns that Chinese authorities are seeking to interfere in other countries’ electric grids in particular.

Under the circumstances, the prospect of Huawei-produced devices making their way into the heart of the European electric grid is deeply troubling. As has been seen with the Mytilineos partnership, there is a real danger that countries will sleepwalk their way into an energy infrastructure that’s sustainable and clean – but subject to Beijing’s whims. With it now looking likely that Huawei equipment will pop up in solar power projects in Cyprus, Spain and other countries across the European bloc, the time is ripe for lawmakers to take action and prevent the pervasive influence of the CCP from creeping any further.

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Artificial intelligence

European strategy for data: What Parliament wants

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Find out how MEPs want to shape the EU's rules for non-personal data sharing to boost innovation and the economy while protecting privacy. Data is at the heart of the EU's digital transformation that is influencing all aspects of society and the economy. It is necessary for the development of artificial intelligence, which is one of the EU's priorities, and presents significant opportunities for innovation, recovery after the Covid-19 crisis and growth, for example in health and green technologies.

Read more about big data opportunities and challenges.

Responding to the European Commission's European Strategy for Data, the Parliament called for legislation focussed on people based on European values of privacy and transparency that will enable Europeans and EU-based companies to benefit from the potential of industrial and public data in a report adopted on 25 March.

The benefits of an EU data economy

MEPs said that the crisis has shown the need for efficient data legislation that will support research and innovation. Large quantities of quality data, notably non-personal - industrial, public, and commercial - already exist in the EU and their full potential is yet to be explored. In the coming years, much more data will be generated. MEPs expect data legislation to help tap into this potential and make data available to European companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, and researchers.

Enabling data flow between sectors and countries will help European businesses of all sizes to innovate and thrive in Europe and beyond and help establish the EU as a leader in the data economy.

The Commission projects that the data economy in the EU could grow from €301 billion in 2018 to €829 billion in 2025, with the number of data professionals rising from 5.7 to 10.9 million.

Europe's global competitors, such as the US and China, are innovating quickly and applying their ways of data access and use. To become a leader in the data economy, the EU should find a European way to unleash potential and set standards.

Rules to protect privacy, transparency and fundamental rights

MEPs said rules should be based on privacy, transparency and respect for fundamental rights. The frree sharing of data must be limited to non-personal data or irreversibly anonymised data. Individuals must be in full control of their data and be protected by EU data protection rules, notably the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The Parliament called on the Commission and EU countries to work with other countries on global standards to promote EU values and principles and ensure the Union’s market remains competitive.

European data spaces and big data infrastructure

Calling for the free flow of data to be the guiding principle, MEPs urged the Commission and EU countries to create sectoral data spaces that will enable the sharing of data while following common guidelines, legal requirements and protocols. In light of the pandemic, MEPs said that special attention should be given to the Common European Health Data Space.

As the success of the data strategy depends largely on information and communication technology infrastructure, MEPs called for accelerating technological developments in the EU, such as cybersecurity technology, optical fibres, 5G and 6G, and welcomed proposals to advance Europe's role in supercomputing and quantum computing. They warned that the digital divide between regions should be tackled to ensure equal possibilities, especially in light of the post-COVID recovery.

Environmental footprint of big data

While data has the potential to support green technologies and the EU's goal to become climate neutral by 2050, the digital sector is responsible for more than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As it grows, it must focus on lowering its carbon footprint and reducing E-waste, MEPs said.

EU data sharing legislation

The Commission presented a European strategy for data in February 2020. The strategy and the White paper on artificial intelligence are the first pillars of the Commission's digital strategy.

Read more about artificial intelligence opportunities and what the Parliament wants.

The Parliaments expects the report to be taken into account in the new Data Act that the Commission will present in the second half of 2021.

Parliament is also working on a report on the Data Governance Act that the Commission presented in December 2020 as part of the strategy for data. It aims to increase data availability and strengthen trust in data sharing and in intermediaries.

A European strategy for data 

Data Governance Act: European data governance 

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coronavirus

Coronavirus: More online risks for children and more digital skills for parents to mitigate them

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Children learning remotely report that they face negative online content, such as cyberbullying or exposure to inappropriate material, more often than before the pandemic, according to a Joint Research Centre (JRC) report, part of the ‘Kids' Digital lives in COVID-19 Times (KiDiCoTi)' project. The research is conducted by the JRC and supported by 26 research centres in 15 countries across Europe. Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, said: “The safety of our children – online and offline – is a priority and a source of concern for us all. The study carried out by the Joint Research Centre helps us to understand better the risks posed to children online and to find improved ways to protect them. These factual findings are invaluable to our science-based policymaking, contributing to tackling issues with the appropriate solutions.”

Some 21% of pupils experienced some sort of cyberbullying more often during the first lockdown in spring 2020; 28% reported having seen an increase in the same period of hate messages related to people of different race, religion, nationality or sexuality, while 29% had their personal data used online in a way they did not like. Active parental mediation, associated with the ‘scaffolding' approach (where parents try to enable children to learn strategies to cope with digital risks by explanation and using the internet together), became much more popular overall; whereas gatekeeping tactics, such blocking of content, or keeping track of visited websites or apps, were employed more frequently during the lockdown. The insights from KiDiCoTi fed into the new EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child adopted on 24 March.

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