Arcep speaks - Speech

Regulating for the commons – Lessons from the 5G situation in France: the need for greater democracy in spectrum

Speech by Sébastien Soriano, Chairman of Arcep, French telecom regulatory authority at the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) Summit, (November the 4th, 2020)

It is a pleasure to be with you today. Of course, we are sorry that we were unable to welcome you to France this year but, with any luck, we’ll be able to rectify that soon.

You already heard from Gilles Brégant of ANFr yesterday. Unlike ANFr, Arcep is not a State agency in the strict sense of the word, but rather an independent authority. Our national system of spectrum governance is quite unique to say the least, but it has many advantages, especially when it comes to balancing different types of concern such as competition, mobile coverage and national political priorities.

Today’s DSA conference comes at a crucial moment: the Techlash. For decades, people saw new technologies as being “good by default”. But that’s all over: for several years now, technologies have also been showing their darker side: surveillance capitalism, digital addiction, political polarisation, and so on.

What we are experiencing in France this year with 5G is a living example of this phenomenon. For the first time, people are really challenging the technology itself, asking questions such as: What concrete purpose does it serve in my daily life? What is the business model behind the Internet of Things, behind the Gigabit society? Is 5G really a priority at a time when the planet is burning, when the economy is collapsing? And this is coming not only from conspiracy theorists, but from the person in the street, from intellectuals, from mayors of large cities like Lyon and Lille.

The lesson for me is the following: we – public authorities, private companies – can no longer roll out technologies without the support of the people. It is not only a question of striking a better balance between governements and tech companies – Snowden’s revelations have shown how these two parties might even work together against the people. It is not only a question of finding better ways to include civil society and citizens in national public policy decisions – people know that technologies rarely depend on a single country.

To me, the right answer is to enable the people to act within the technology. Which, for a regulator, means empowering consumers, local authorities, entrepreneurs, associations, communities of developers and manufacturers… It means being part of the process of designing and rolling out technologies. In a nutshell: it means regulating for the commons.

Let me explain what spectrum has to do with it.

From 2015 onwards, our priority at Arcep has been to take what the French population needed most as our starting point. At that time, their needs were clear: they needed 4G coverage and decent quality of service. This is something we had to provide them with urgently. That’s what we did with the “New Deal for Mobile” programme, also known internationally as Spectrum for Investment. It’s a very innovative process that has received global acclaim. In anticipation of the renewal of certain frequencies, national operators have made very ambitious committments to deploying their 4G networks in rural areas (investing more than 3 billion euros). But what I would like to underline specifically here is the particular role granted to mayors in rural areas. The installation locations of the antennas deployed under this programme are not decided in Paris, but by the local populations themselves, through the voice of their mayors. Of course there is a limited number of new cell sites – 600 to 800 per operator per year – and global coordination is required, but nuts and bolts decisions are made at the grassroots level. In other words: spectrum for the people and by the people.

And we can go one step further, by promoting spectrum sharing.

Joëlle Toledano’s 2014 report on dynamic spectrum management was a precursor on the matter. It recommended many paths to be taken at the State level which are still relevant today.

This report led Arcep, first, to open a regulatory sandbox. In October 2016, the Digital Republic Act defined a framework for using frequencies and phone numbers to enable innovation in telecoms. As a result, Arcep can now ease an operator’s obligations temporarily (for up to two years) in order to support its development of innovative technologies and services, both technically and commercially.

At the time, this new system was the first of its kind in France. It enables entrepreneurs to test the technical robustness and profitability of a service under real-life conditions. It supports innovation in the Internet of Things, mobile applications using telephone numbers, associative networks, etc. Today we have a dozen of consortia testing fascinating use cases over the 26GHz band through this programme.

Arcep is now working to accomplish a second step. We published a memo on spectrum sharing issues last year, together with our scientific board and as part of our “Future Networks” cycle of inquiry.

Arcep has already authorised interesting experiments on TV white spaces over the last decades (and notably the Microsoft trial in the Gers).

The next big questions will be raised with the allocation of the 26 GHz band. We expect at least part of this band to be shared between various users, especially businesses. This will be a fascinating challenge for Arcep. We hope to develop partnerships with other European countries to tackle it.

This is also a unique opportunity to enlarge the ecosystem of 5G players.

As the Amercian lawyer Yochai Benkler, author of The wealth of networks, has long stated, radio spectrum is a particularly favourable medium for building a commons. These are the well known “spectrum commons”. From the point of view of the State, this cannot happen without making some major changes. It means moving forward with a little more flexibility and accepting the unknowns of innovation.

Instituting a commons can be facilitated by public power and/or the market sphere, as Benkler says. Net neutrality is a prime illustration of this phenomenon as it applies to telecoms. Still denounced in the United States, in Europe it guarantees the Internet’s open architecture, which in turn allows freedom of expression and innovation without State or market control. The informational common goods, represented by the emblematic Wikipedia, are thus made possible by network infrastructures, which are the result of mostly private and sometimes public investments.

If we are to respond to our fellow citizens’ demand to regain control over technology, we need to be ambitious. This is why it is vital that we not only to recognise but also empower the commons.