A decade has almost passed since internet companies began announcing ‘mobile first’ strategies. In that time, there has been a monumental rise in multi-touch smartphones, apps and mobile data, with a growing number of applications now only available in mobile format. However, to realize the full potential of mobile in Europe, a shift in policy priorities is essential to bring it in line with the progress that has been made elsewhere.
Mobile and wireless have provided us with an opportunity similar to that of previous general-purpose technologies such as steam, electricity and computing, namely – to boost productivity growth over a sustained period by supporting a broad range of consumer, commercial and industrial applications.
If we want to take full advantage of this opportunity, however, we need to ensure that mobile is ubiquitous, capable and consistent. This means reducing unit costs and having the ability and freedom to offer tailored mobile broadband, Internet of Things and low-latency industrial connectivity. The emergence of 5G will highlight these characteristics, which we refer to as ‘expansive mobile.’
General-purpose technologies lead to spillover effects that benefit all sectors of the economy, and in the case of expansive mobile, these are complemented by network effects. The benefits of expansive mobile are likely to be far more than private returns to investors in mobile networks. For that reason, the barriers to private investment need to be removed, but investment also needs to be actively encouraged.
Investments in expansive mobile are a part of realigning the mobile first policy in Europe, which is long overdue. As far back as 2010, the US National Broadband Plan announced that: “The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation.” And in 2018, the Chinese government highlighted 5G commercialization and the development of an industrial internet as priorities. When it comes to putting mobile first in Europe, however, there has been a business-as-usual approach to regulation and investment. Europe has been good at setting goals in this respect, but slow to update them.
So, if we are to truly seize the potential of expansive mobile in Europe, we need to adopt a new approach to regulation and investment. This involves bringing about a shift in high-level policy focus, away from the priorities identified in the pre-‘mobile first’ era, which are reflected in current policy objectives, metrics and institutions and have seen network investment, adoption and use lag behind that of other developed regions.
Embracing expansive mobile will increase the contribution of mobile to productivity, income and employment growth. But the benefits go beyond this to include improved digital inclusion and gains across all areas of public policy, driven by improved information and an expanded and more effective set of policy options, such as in relation to health and the environment. Europe should therefore seize this opportunity that expansive mobile presents.
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About Brian Williamson
Brian Williamson is a partner at Communications Chambers and has extensive policy and strategy experience in relation to the benefits of, and policy relation to, connectivity, apps and the internet. Brian has advised clients in relation to telecoms, technology and radio spectrum policy and strategy issues. He has developed new ways of approaching policy problems, including the anchor product regulation concept adopted in Europe. Brian has an MSc in Economics from the London School of Economics and a BSc in Physics from the University of Auckland.