The events of 2020 made the need to modernize Europe’s communications infrastructure emphatically clear. We have long been dependent on high-speed connectivity, but last year accelerated that trend. Across the world, we saw a sharp rise of remote work, virtual learning, and streaming for entertainment and connection—and we learned that we cannot take connectivity for granted.
Newly remote learners and workers struggled to maintain the connectivity they needed for day-to-day activities. Internet service providers had to push streaming companies to downgrade video quality in order to preserve bandwidth for essential services.
At the same time, the consequences of Europe’s digital divide have also become evident. If connectivity was strained in cities, the effect was even harder in rural Europe. Despite major connectivity growth in urban areas, the majority of citizens lack access to fast fibre, and some in rural areas still don’t have reliable internet. In a world where critical tasks happen online, and more workers operate remotely, this divide is unsustainable.
Innovation Barriers to Overcome
It has become clear: We depend on the same, dated infrastructure to support a new world of connectivity requirements—and we need a new approach. To build and expand our infrastructure, however, Europe will need to overcome some major challenges:
- Visibility: To know what to build, and where to build it, you need to know what you already have. However, most countries lack a complete record of their communications infrastructure. Building a complete picture requires sifting through public records and information from different service providers.
- Labor: To keep up with rising demand for connectivity, Europe will need to deploy a significant amount of infrastructure—and hire many skilled workers for those projects. The effort will create millions of jobs, but filling those jobs will be challenging.
- Permitting: Governments are already strained under a backlog of permit requests for infrastructure projects, many of which require digging up streets and public areas. This backlog can add time to every project.
- Disruption: Citizens everywhere want reliable connectivity for their growing number of connected devices, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy to navigate traffic disruptions while the streets are dug up to deploy new infrastructure. The standard approach to laying fibre cable can cause significant and lengthy traffic disruptions. When you consider how many projects need to be completed, it could add up to a seemingly endless amount of disruption, far beyond what citizens are willing to tolerate.
- Affordability: Modernizing Europe’s infrastructure will not be cheap. From the labor and material requirements to the vast number of projects to complete across the continent, this is a significant financial endeavor. Funding these projects at scale will require creative and thoughtful planning.
- Fragmentation: As telecom operators compete to expand Fibre to the Home (FTTH) and lay the foundation for 5G, they often duplicate efforts in urban areas, while leaving rural areas underdeveloped. The competitive environment incentivizes inefficiencies in infrastructure development. Greater collaboration could expand access faster—a model Ireland successfully implemented in 2012 with its Next Generation Broadband Taskforce.
Three Areas of Focus for the Future
To rise above these challenges and build the infrastructure we need to support our digital future, Europe must innovate on several fronts.
- Product innovation: Miniaturized or micro technology can solve many of the problems facing infrastructure projects. Due to size and capability, these products will greatly reduce installation costs, labor requirements, project time, and traffic disruptions. This includes products, such as 200-micron optical fibres, collapsible ribbons, microcables, and microducts.
For example, with microduct solutions, installers can get three times more fibre in cable sized 30% smaller than standard loose tube cabling. Ultimately, the smaller, innovative products create positive impact with fewer disruptions and costs.
- Installation innovation: Innovation isn’t just limited to products. Rethinking our installation methods will also help overcome many of the challenges facing infrastructure expansion.
For instance, an override installation creates new capacity for fibre by placing one or more new pathways in an existing, occupied network – a far less intrusive and expensive option. By installing microducts on top of the existing live fibre cable, you help resolve many of the challenges that come with deploying brand-new infrastructure.
Microtrenching is another innovative new way to address labor challenges and improve installation efficiency. In this approach, you sawcut into the road, create a very narrow trench, place the pathway into the slot or trench, then easily restore the microtrench. This greatly minimizes traffic disruptions and is less costly to execute.
- Funding innovation: With the rise of fibre and 5G, telecommunications providers have been squeezed with a need to invest in many innovations in a short time. Low prices and high regulation of the communications sector has strained the European telecommunications sector and made investment in expensive infrastructure projects less attractive.
However, there are significant opportunities for investors who take a long-term view. For instance, every FTTH project could simultaneously lay the foundation for 5G. With a small increase in upfront costs, investors avoid the need for another expensive infrastructure project as 5G emerges. Not only does this increase the efficiency of the project and save long-term costs, it also provides new revenue opportunities from leasing the infrastructure.
European governments may also inspire funding innovation by driving collaboration among telecom operators. If these businesses can collaborate on where to dig and spread out the cost of the infrastructure processes, we can achieve greater connectivity faster, and get more from each investment.
With the right innovations, it is possible to overcome the challenges facing Europe’s infrastructure and build the proper support for our connected future. Our students, workers, and society as a whole increasingly depend on reliable connectivity. The stakes are high—but we can rise to the challenge.