September 17, 2020 • Opinion •
« France is going to take the turn of the 5G […]. I hear a lot of voices explaining to us that the complexity of contemporary problems should be raised by returning to the oil lamp, I don’t believe in the Amish model »: the words of President Emmanuel Macron, held Tuesday evening in front of a hundred bosses of the French Tech, seem to try to crystallize the debate on 5G between « progressives » and champions of degrowth. The political calculation is undoubtedly not foreign to this brutal charge.
A constructive and serene debate on the deployment of 5G in our country cannot, however, be satisfied with such a simplification nor with what is a form of infantilization of the French, who would only have a choice between techno-beats and their inevitably radiant future on the one hand and, on the other hand, retrograde regressors surfing on the health crisis and the diversion of the precautionary principle to discredit a promising technology. This false debate must not mask the real economic, sovereignty, innovation and reindustrialisation issues at stake for France and Europe, nor must it mask the potential health and environmental problems.
On this last aspect, it is advisable to keep reason. The debate on the health risks linked to the deployment of 5G is more or less the same as those which took place at the time with 2G, 3G and 4G and mainly concerns the classification by the WHO, in 2011, of electromagnetic radiation as a possible carcinogen. However, the ANFR (French National Frequency Agency) wants to be reassuring since, in a report last April, it stated that during traffic-free test measurements of 5G sites that are switched on, exposure levels are very low (0.36 V/m) and that, even when the antenna is transmitting continuously and under full load in a given direction, it caps at 9 V/m, which is well below the regulatory limit value, set at 61 V/m in the 3.5 GHz frequency band. These reassuring analyses are in line with those of the competent authorities in other European countries.
Let’s turn to the other aspects: economic, industrial and political. It is perfectly possible to make the deployment of 5G a genuine opportunity for France, an opportunity for technological and industrial rearmament. There are four conditions for this, which will require firmness and long-term vision – which we have not seen so far.
First condition: the affirmation of a strong political will on the subject of French digital sovereignty and not simply technical measures, half-figure, half grape, more or less revisable and more or less assumed, which attempt to preserve appearances as to the respect of the rules of European competition law, as we saw recently in the Huawei case. This could result in the creation of a sovereign and protected internal market, favourable to the emergence of European digital champions and the initiation of an in-depth movement to reindustrialise the continent, starting with sensitive areas (antennas, data centres, military contracts, contracts with law enforcement agencies, etc.).
A genuine digital sovereignty strategy cannot be satisfied with incantations or chimeras such as the promotion of spontaneously generated « unicorns » that would miraculously compete with the American and Chinese digital giants… It is a whole favourable environment that must be built, mixing start-ups, ETIs, large groups, etc.
The second condition under the first one is to reform European competition rules. Since the Maastricht Treaty, the EU’s sole ambition seems to be to ensure the functioning of the common market, which was conceived as a simple free-trade area that simply absorbs products from all over the world for the benefit of an anonymous consumer. It is time for this to change and while recent statements by Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Industrial Policy, Internal Market and Digital Agenda, are a step in the right direction, they are still far too timid. A new strategy for « European production » should be defined by creating an independent European « ecosystem » combining investment, research, industry, dissemination vectors and customs measures.
To this end, genuine European Economic Interest Groupings (EIGs) should be encouraged, through incentives such as « European Special Economic Zones » which would promote European reindustrialisation, or European Public Interest Groupings (EPIGs) in the military or national security fields.
Third condition: implement an industrial innovation strategy in the connected objects sector. The smartphone market, for example, which has reached maturity (with a household equipment rate of nearly 80%), will be impacted by the deployment of 5G, which will require a renewal of devices. But in the Top-12 of global smartphone companies, nine are Chinese and none are European. Here again, there is a unique opportunity to reindustrialise our country to produce these future devices domestically and elsewhere in Europe.
The market for objects (IoT, Internet of Things) will also experience a dazzling development in the years to come, with estimates hovering around 50 billion connected objects by the end of 2020 and 150 billion by 2025. French and European innovations should not be absent from this market. The industrial renewal goes through this sector. Finally, the market for autonomous vehicles, which is moving towards all-electricity, could, if synergies were implemented within the framework of the French decarbonated hydrogen plan unveiled last September, enable a new technological breakthrough with autonomous vehicles powered by « made in France » fuel cells or pre-filled and interchangeable hydrogen tanks for autonomous heavy vehicles, and become a sector of the future and industrial excellence .
Fourth condition: this new ambition must be based on a genuine « Marshall Plan » for vocational training to accompany the digital transformation that 5G will accelerate. In April 2019, the OECD announced that 14% of jobs could disappear within 20 years due to the digitalisation of the economy and that France would be slightly more exposed than the average, with 16.4% of jobs threatened and 32.8% transformed. It will therefore be necessary to invest all over the place in training. We have already proposed the creation of a « technological transition training credit » for employees. This new device would be calculated according to the technical evolutions in each sector (by an index) in order to allow employees to stay in the race or to change fields. Many other initiatives, both in initial and continuing training, are to be taken.
The « France Relaunch » Plan, presented by the government on 3 September last, certainly includes a complete chapter dedicated to digital sovereignty and another to the digital upgrading of the State, territories and businesses. This amounts to a 180-degree turnaround on the part of a government that now defines a return to sovereignty as a condition for the survival of the French economy. This is to be welcomed, but the modesty of the real investments in the plan is even more worrying. The 5G turnaround will benefit the French economy, France and the French people if really strong actions follow the speeches.