Telecommunications and its infrastructure play a vital part in everyday life, not just for communication itself, but also in business, mobility and public safety. The development of this market was handed over to the industry participants some time ago. The universal service provisions were sufficient to ensure a high-quality service. But times change and with the digitalisation of all activities in society comes the need for much more high-performance networks.
The gigabit society concept was introduced at EU level in 2016 with the long-term goal of minimum transmission rates of 100 Mbps for all households. At the same time, the first political initiatives to promote high-speed broadband were launched in Switzerland (e.g. the canton of Ticino’s initiative, April 2016). However, the issue was less prominent in the political debate in Switzerland than in other countries. This was because Switzerland already had a high-quality infrastructure provided by the various operators. There was no urgency as the performance of the legacy provider’s copper network had been upgraded through technological innovation and achieved high transmission rates nationwide – well in excess of the minimum speeds required for universal service. The existing networks proved robust during the COVID-19 crisis, enabling new forms of working and learning.
The performance of telecommunications via mobile networks is also improving. 5G enables the requirements of increasingly mobile usage patterns to be met. This new technology has proven its effectiveness and operates at a level of radiation that is still well below the extremely stringent limits which have applied in Switzerland for decades under the precautionary principle. This is highlighted by the FOEN’s first monitoring report on non-ionising radiation, published in 2022. These findings should help to dispel public fears.
In light of the existing solutions, the question as to whether the minimum performance of universal service in the fixed-line sector should be increased today – as an instrument of social integration – is well justified. The aim of regulation is to prevent the misuse of a dominant market position. A look at the current situation shows that Switzerland has complementary networks based on different technologies and can currently provide all broadband services (copper, optical fibre, cable networks, mobile communications). The need for technology neutrality is tacitly recognised, even if ComCom’s remit is restricted to regulation of the copper network.
At the request of the legislator and the Federal Council, Switzerland will have universal service with a transmission rate of 80 Mbps from 2024, whereas most countries still only require a maximum of 10 Mbps. This amendment to universal service is an intermediate step on the path to a genuine high-speed broadband strategy that will not only foster social integration, but also promote economic growth. The term high-speed broadband refers to optical-fibre cable and mobile networks from the 5th generation (5G). Switzerland is nevertheless lagging behind with the rollout of optical fibre networks compared with other OECD countries. Optical fibre networks are a key technology in a genuine, future-oriented high-speed broadband strategy as the demand for online services – such as video streaming, video conferences and cloud computing as well as the number of applications requiring high-speed broadband (e.g. in the healthcare sector) or almost immediate response times (such as in the security sector) – will only increase in the future.
Several fundamental issues must be addressed before a national digital strategy can be implemented. These include ensuring data security in a globalised world, transparency over the origin of algorithms and ethical issues related to tools based on artificial intelligence, such as chatbots.
Regulatory policy in the telecommunications sector is subject to constant change in Europe. Discussions often focus on how regulations can be amended to promote investment in telecommunications infrastructure and ensure consumer protection. This includes, for example, the conditions for guaranteeing the security of telecommunications networks which is an increasingly significant issue in Europe.
Regulation of the use of future-oriented telecommunications services must take various factors into account. New technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR), are changing the telecommunications sector. The aspects of symmetrical communication and latency must be addressed so that the services and the user experience enable genuine integration of digital services into everyday life by reducing the gap between urban and rural areas and between the generations.
The telecommunications industry plays a vital role in major social changes. This means ComCom’s role should not be restricted to that of regulating a soon-to-be outdated technology generation. Through its key function of awarding frequencies, it can make a vital contribution towards achieving social change and the emergence of a gigabit society in Switzerland. ComCom, comprising experts in the field, would welcome a shift in this direction.
Adrienne Corboud Fumagalli, President