Mark Spelman is a British expert focused on key 5G challenges like standardisation and cyber-security. His current roles include heads the Thought Leadership at the World Economic Forum and leading the Forum’s initiative on the future of the digital economy and society. He was also chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce Executive Council in Brussels and a non-executive director at Sport England. At a time when 5G rollouts in the EU are dominating the headlines amid concerns about security and data protection, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Spelman on the side lines of the Brussels 5G Assembly.

New Europe (NE): Putting aside the potential threats, how exactly do you think that 5G can be a revolution?

Mark Spelman (MS): 5G is without doubt a massive opportunity because it is going to transform our ability to connect everything weather it is in cities, factories, or at home. As a result, there is going to be an explosion of data, but with the opportunities you have to manage the risks like issues of trust and transparency. Security becomes very important. To make 5G happen will require us to have better collaboration models going forward. If we just look this at through the lens of business or regulators we won’t optimise 5G’s abilities going forward. Now my basic message is that we are on the verge of new decade with new opportunities, but we have to be careful not to replicate the mistakes of, for example, artificial intelligence where we have spent all of the time playing catch up. We absolutely need to get ahead of the curve and we need to be thinking about the next 10 years as 5G progressively gets rolled out across Europe. It is necessary to anticipate what the upsides and downsizes of 5G are going to create.

NE: How can Europe contribute to the regulating and monitoring 5G?

MS: The first thing for 5G to work is that you need spectrum allocation frequencies that are organized. This needs to be done in a fair and sensible way across national boundaries. You need to look very carefully at the rules for spectrum allocation and also for local permitting. If you are going to put a load of 5G equipment somewhere that you don’t want in Milan, for example, they are going put it in place very quickly and in Rome very slowly. What can’t happen is that specific equipment is going to be available only for a single player and not for multiple players. The spectrum is infrastructure sharing and also working together to getting the right device standards. It doesn’t matter if those are peripherals devices are sitting in factories or if they’re sensor equipment, all those requires standards. One of the important things about 5G is that we are sending lots more data from these peripheral devices back into the cloud to essentially compute power, and that needs standards in order to manage.

NE: Do you think we need more European standards or different ones?

MS: One of the good things that Europe has shown with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is that it has been able to set a standard. It has created a benchmark which a lot of people follow. My message would be that as Europe is pretty good at setting standards means the more we can set creates a sense of influence which then become a sort of magnet. I think then that in today’s world it is very difficult to get uniformity and therefore if you go from a model that says “you must have uniformity from day one “I think this unrealistic. So my message to the Europeans is the more uniformity you get gives a baseline of standards that are agreed across Europe. It will then be easier to have others attached to that.

NE: What can the US contribute in this matter?

MS: There are lots of natural synergies between the US and EU and if you look at the volumes of data and information, while also not forgetting the huge number of American multinationals that work in Europe and vice-versa, you have an idea about the current opportunities. There are tensions in trade, but when you look at some of the natural underpinnings there are still lots of opportunities for collaboration. You have then to remember that the US isn’t always a unified sort of entity, so if we don’t collaborate on what the standards are, you get fragmentation in terms of applications. 

NE: And what about the Chinese contribution?

MS: We completely underestimated the impact that Chinese R&D will have on the future and they have much longer term and ambitious goals than both the Americans and Europeans. I think that in the future, Chinese and Indian influence will have more of an impact on us. Look at the “One Belt, One Road initiative. The 21st century is a pivot to Asia and we need to think about how we are going to compete in the world. There are countries like Switzerland and Singapore that are very successful and there is no reason why we can’t be successful with the big players. We have to be extremely focused and much more productive while also recognising that the driver of Chinese power will keep on going for the next 15-20 years.

NE: What are the biggest threats in relation to cyber-security?    

MS: Cyber criminals are learning all the time and they are getting smarter. They are using artificial intelligence like business organisations, so we need to look at creating a centre of expertise and we need to share intelligence on cyber-security. Countries must cooperate more and companies must keep updating their processes on how to address cyber-security. We need to set up mechanisms at the national and corporate level to be able to address those attacks. It will be important then to cooperate with China and the US. If you look at the digital development in Africa their capacity to fight these attacks is still limited, so we will have to help then.