The way the telecoms industry is represented in Europe is still too weak and fragmented, says Proximus CEO Dominique Leroy in a conversation with The Digital Post on the sidelines of the iMinds annual conference. Her main suggestion for the revision of the telecom framework: more regulatory focus on services than technology.
The Digital Post: Let’s start from Internet of Things. Proximus is the first operator in Belgium, and one of the first in Europe, that launched a network for Internet of Things. What is it about?
Dominique Leroy: Historically, telecoms were always about connecting people. More and more in the future, they will also play a key role in connecting things. Against this background, what we did is not so much building a simple network, but setting up a whole end-to-end ecosystem to enable the Internet of Things. We are providing enterprises, consumers as well as developers an end-to-end system equipped with sensors and based on LoRa networks, a long-range and low-power type of networks that connects sensors without SIM cards.
The purpose is to get small packets of data from the sensors through the LoRa networks and store them in our data centers on a platform called MyThings, where we already provide data analytics. The idea is then to open the platform to developers so that they can develop new applications. There are certain domains where we would like to go all the way up to creating applications, mainly in the mobility field, where we think that we can really bring an added value through Internet of Things.
So as you see, the Internet of Things opens up a whole new ecosystem. It is more than a utility provided by telcos. We want to offer solutions, partnerships, we are opening up to other players and therefore we are creating innovation. We are also one of the first companies in the sector moving in this direction.
DL: That’s probably where telco operators have a real added value considering their knowhow: We already provide end-to-end security over our infrastructures, from your phone to the applications you use, all the way to our datacentres. This expertise is very important for tomorrow’s connectivity in cars, home automation and health. LoRa networks come already with a triple encryption key. They secure the sensor identification, the payload and the network. In general, when it comes to using certification, identification and authorization technologies I believe that is where we provide a lot of added value.
TDP: How do you see telecoms operators capitalizing on the Internet of Things in, say, five years from now?
DL: Data consumption today is driven mainly by millions of people connecting with each other. Data consumption will increase dramatically in the coming years as billions of connected devices go on-line. This new reality will create huge volumes of data traffic. IoT will thus become an important piece of the telcos ecosystems, leading to more investment in infrastructures, stimulating more innovation, value, and opportunities for new revenue streams and profit.
TDP: The European commission is working on new proposals to implement greater coordination at European level of radio-spectrum policies. Unfortunately, in the past similar legislative moves were met with strong scepticism from member states. Why this time should be different?
DL: I don’t think member states want to give to Europe their powers on spectrum policy. But they very much understand that if they want to develop a coherent European digital market, there needs to be some coordination. The repurposing of 700 MHz for Wireless Broadband Services should be done within a certain timeframe all over Europe, otherwise it wouldn’t work. If tomorrow we need much higher frequency bandwidth, for instance to be able to develop 5G and self-driving cars, some sort of European coordination is essential to get there.
Moreover, a more consistent policy all over Europe should be applied to the length of licenses. These actions are all feasible, and I think member states will in a way or another agree that’s the right path. However, what they won’t allow is that the EU decide on the prices for the spectrum. In any case, I think that we have an opportunity to have more coordination in terms of timing of the auctions and duration of spectrum licenses.
TDP: What should be the main priorities of the forthcoming proposal on the revision of the EU telecoms framework?
DL: We definitely need less regulation to be able to catch up with more competitive markets. In the last 20 years, Europe has been very effective in overseeing the liberalization of the industry securing a high level of competition. However, today if you look at the big players in the industry, either they come from America, or more and more from Asia. Regulation is certainly one of the root causes of not having strong European digital players.
So, let’s make sure that we deregulate as much as possible, and let competition drive investments and spur innovation. Levelling the playing field is also another important aspect. It is not acceptable anymore that telcos are subjected to obligations on, say, privacy, data usage, or interoperability that are not applying to players operating the same services. The problem today is that regulation is focusing too much on technology and not on services, which produce lot of inconsistencies between cable, telecom, OTT operators providing the same services. So my recipe could be summarized in three elements: less regulation, more level playing field, more regulatory focus on services than technology.
TDP: A word on the increasingly tough stance of Margrethe Vestager on Mergers & Acquisitions?
DL: I think we as an industry need to articulate better what we want, what are the risks of preventing telcos from growing in scale, and what is acceptable and what not. We are not very well-structured and every too often we shy away from speaking with one voice. That also explains why it is easier for regulators to take their own direction: we do not make enough efforts to be listened. We can blame regulators or politicians but I think we should also look at ourselves and see how we can be more united to defend our industry. The way we are represented in Europe is still too weak and fragmented.
Picture credits: Matt Brajlih
Despite what many people may think, there is no real lack in capital supply for Europeans interested in launching their own start-ups in the digital domain.
The rise of (digital) technology start-ups is a global phenomenon, with extensive start-up ecosystems – such as the one in Silicon Valley – being replicated all over the world. Like any other region, Europe is highly interested in reaping the economic and societal benefits of a flourishing start-up economy.
In a recent speech, Neelie Kroes (the former Commissioner for Europe’s Digital Agenda) stated for instance that two out of three (!) new jobs in Ireland are created by start-ups in the first five years of existence.
Not all is rosy, though. Critics often say that it remains hard for European start-ups to get access to the proper financial means to kickstart their businesses.
But is that really the case?
It’s definitely not their biggest problem. Despite what many people may think, there is no real lack in capital supply for Europeans interested in launching their own start-ups in the digital domain.
Virtually each region has done a good job in developing the appropriate funding mechanisms to support start-ups’ launch activities. In other words: it’s not (all) about the money. As a matter of fact, three bigger threats to European start-ups’ longer-term growth can be discerned – culture, regulation and mindset.
A first issue is Europe’s fragmented market – not so much from a geographical perspective, but rather from a cultural one. Indeed, in spite of all good intentions, it remains difficult for European start-ups to sell their products across ‘cultural’ borders. The use of different languages is one obstacle, of course, but divergent social aspirations and cultural values are equally important barriers.
For example, selling a solution for personalized online advertising might be perfectly acceptable in one region because of the advantages it brings (instead of being spammed, one only gets to see those ads that are in line with his/her interests), but it may fail completely in cultures where this is perceived as a direct assault on people’s privacy.
Intra-European legal and regulatory barriers present additional obstacles. A concrete example is the burden that accompanies the launch of pan-European digital health solutions, with each European country having issued its own regulations related to the development, sale, usage and reimbursement of products and services in the digital health realm.
And finally, there’s mindset. Contrary to the US, where everything is big and aimed towards rapid international expansion, European start-ups typically have a more ‘provincial’ mindset. In today’s global, digital economy, though, that’s a major shortcoming. In order to really succeed, start-ups should have international ambitions right from the start.
As we observed already, none of those barriers exist in the US – making this geographical and cultural region a single, big ‘unified’ market with more than 320 million consumers.
Both its scale and transparency make it an easier target to introduce products and grow. A bit ironically perhaps, even conquering the rest of the European market is typically easier if done from the US…
So, how can we address those challenges? I see three important lines of action, in which European policy makers have a major role to play:
– From a regulatory perspective, measures should be taken to further unify the European market – so that its full potential of more than 500 million consumers and potential investors can be tapped.
Streamlining regulation in domains such as digital health, for instance, would already open up a wide range of growth opportunities for potentially hundreds of European start-ups.
Obviously, this would not help us overcome the cultural boundaries overnight; but to that end, instruments are already in place, such as the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), to help companies investigate how people will respond to new products and features – before the actual market launch.
– To foster the pan-European growth of start-ups and overcome the provincial mindset, a number of good initiatives have already been taken as well.
One concrete example is the creation of EIT Digital, which helps European start-ups accelerate their growth – o.a. by finding European and worldwide customers for their products and solutions, or by helping them raise funds.
– And finally, when it boils down to securing first customers, Europe should investigate the concept of ‘innovative procurement’– a best practice that has already been widely adopted by the UK and US administrations. It requires government bodies and local branches of big multinationals to allocate a certain percentage of their public procurement activities to innovative start-ups.
As such, start-ups can more easily get the necessary credentials and references to continue growing their businesses. According to certain estimates, public procurement is worth €2,000 billion to the EU economy – so dedicating even 1% of that amount to innovative procurement still equals €20 billion per year to support the European start-up ecosystem.
But also for that, a cultural and regulatory shift is required…