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Interview with Urs Schaeppi on the 5G rollout

5G rollout

Is it reasonable to still want to achieve Swiss-wide 5G despite the opposition?

A significant milestone has been reached now that a basic version of 5G provides coverage to 90 percent of the swiss population. In light of the current debate, is it legitimate to want to expand further? Interview with Urs Schaeppi, CEO Swisscom.
Sabrina Hubacher
Sabrina Hubacher, Media spokesperson
19 December 2019

A high-capacity mobile network consists of many different elements. At the end of 2019, Swisscom reached a first milestone in the construction of the 5G network, launching a basic version of 5G through a software update, covering 90% of the swiss population. Compatible devices will be available on the market in the first quarter of 2020.

 

This basic version already offers many, but not all, of the advantages of the new technology. For instance, data cannot yet be transferred 1000 times more efficiently and in a more energy-saving manner as this is only possible with the full version. For the full version, however, which brings all the advantages of 5G, new antenna sites or the renovation of existing installations are essential.

Urs Schaeppi, a large part of the population is against any further expansion of the mobile network. And yet despite this opposition, Swisscom is offering a basic 5G version throughout Switzerland. Is this really necessary?

It is quite simple: we are building today for the requirements of tomorrow. Since the introduction of smartphones, the data traffic in our network has continued to rise steeply on a daily basis. Our job is to ensure that the network (and, in turn, society and the economy) continues to run smoothly for the foreseeable future, and that parts of Switzerland do not suddenly find themselves brought to a standstill by mobile network congestion. In view of this, the talk of construction bans is very dangerous. At first, there will be no discernible effects, then some minor disruption and then suddenly the entire network will come to a standstill.

But why? We are only talking about 5G.

No, we are not and that’s what concerns me. The current restrictions, such as moratoria, not only affect expansion of the 5G network, they also affect the current 4G network. It is like saying ‘let’s ban the motorway’ because we already have village roads that do the job. This would result in data backlogs and congestion.  

But probably not for long.

Exactly, and that’s what is at risk of happening with 4G. We need more efficient ‘motorways’ with additional lanes. We need an opportunity to give the emergency services right of way on the network. And we have to offer industry all the opportunities of 5G to enable it to build robotics and bring jobs back to Switzerland. Demand for mobile communications is increasing on a daily basis. And there is no end in sight. The debate is therefore also contradictory.

In what sense contradictory?

97 percent of households own a smartphone. At the same time, more than 50 percent of the Swiss population are concerned about the potential health effects of mobile telecommunication. People are railing against the mobile phone masts, but at the same time are using the infrastructure more than ever. Data traffic continues to grow at a rapid pace.

Have you been surprised at the level of opposition?

Yes and no. There have been similar discussions in the past. There have been various different concerns levelled against 5G. However, some of these fears in fact have very little to do with 5G. Debate then focuses only on the technology and not on how we, as a society, want to take advantage of the new possibilities. Many people cannot currently see the added value for themselves; they are just very unsettled.

“The debate surrounding mobile technology is contradictory”

Urs Schaeppi, CEO Swisscom

There are also many who say that the network is fast enough already; that there’s no need for anything more.

Whilst that may be true today, this will not be the case in the future. As the FOEN report makes clear, the mobile networks in urban areas are already being pushed to their limits because of the steep rise in our customers’ data consumption. In the last seven years, there has been a forty-fold increase in the volume of data. With the current regulatory framework, our hands are tied, and we are unable to upgrade nine out of ten installations – either with 4G or the full 5G version. It is a bit like having a law that bans the renovation of any building higher than 2 storeys.

Doesn’t this comparison fall short? After all, there are not even any devices that are compatible with the initially mentioned basic version of 5G.

As I said, we are building today for the requirements of tomorrow. The first devices that can use this basic version will be in stores in 2020. Our network is ready. Anyone surfing with 5G surfs more efficiently, making space for other mobile phone users.

Globally, there is significant competition for 5G, and Swisscom is leading the field. Shouldn’t you be more euphoric?

I firmly believe in the added value of 5G for Switzerland. With Ypsomed, we have shown what is possible for the industry – because the technological edge is very apparent. 5G is also important for Ypsomed. So yes, technically, it is a great achievement and I am very proud of my colleagues. And again, yes, I would of course prefer to talk about technical milestones. But this enthusiasm for technology will not get us anywhere if it triggers concern and fear among the general public. It is important that we emphasise that it is a further development of the existing technology, which has undergone decades of research, and that the principle and exposure remain the same. We also have to show that its efficiency and intelligent design offer many new opportunities, particularly for a centre of research and industry such as Switzerland.

What happens next?

We are hoping for a more objective discussion – the aforementioned FOEN report provides a basis for this. In hindsight, I would say that the industry promoting 5G worldwide as a revolution, rather than an evolution, was perhaps not the best approach. We are pursuing a forward-thinking expansion of the network; we follow all the rules and we take concerns seriously. Today, people ask, why are you building at all? In a few years, they will ask, when will you finally bring it to us? Or do you want to imagine not having any reception in Delémont or Zurich Wiedikon?

Could that really happen?

Yes, if fear wins out. But I am optimistic. In a few years, it will be clear to everyone that 5G is like going from the light bulb to LED. The LED is a little harder to understand – but is the answer to the challenges of the future. The same is true of 5G.

Additional information

The basic version uses frequencies that have long been assigned for mobile use (5G-wide) and will be used successively for 5G. These allow wide-area coverage and up to 1 Gbit/s data throughput. In spring of this year, this will be joined by the newly released mobile frequency (3.5 GHz), which was previously used for television coverage. This is needed for the full version. The first devices in stores only use this new frequency and are labelled 5G-fast. New devices that can use both the basic and full version will be launched in the first quarter of 2020.

 

The newly released frequency offers very high capacities and speeds, but with a shorter range. In terms of energy consumption and the use of electromagnetic fields, both 5G versions are more efficient than previous technologies. To be able to take advantage of everything that 5G offers, people will need the full version with the latest hardware (5G-fast). However, Switzerland’s extraordinarily stringent environmental policy stands in the way of a faster expansion of the full version.

 



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