Sébastien Soriano: Does the mobile industry really
serious intention to invest in 5G?
If telecoms operators and carriers refuse to invest in
improving infrastructure, they face being wiped out by even
harsher falling margins.
This was the stark message delivered by French regulator
Sébastien Soriano, who will take the reins in 2017 at
Berec – the Body of European Regulators for Electronic
Communications – in 2017.
Soriano was appointed as the head of Arcep, the Autorité
de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et
des Postes, by France’s president François
Hollande in January 2015. He claims European operators are
facing a number of challenges, but their best bet is to put
more money in to improving connectivity – be it
fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), 4G or even 5G.
"When I speak about investment, it is not just the amount of
money that is spent," he says in his office in sight of the
Eiffel Tower: "In the US they spent more because there is not
network sharing – it is stupid money to some
"What we want is connectivity – poles, coverage. We
are using all our toolbox to make this shift from just price
competition to a mix of price and quality."
This expands across Europe, where he questions the level of
interest in investment from the telecoms industry. After
spending billions on 4G, the industry is poised for another
extravagant shopping spree on the fifth generation of wireless
technology (5G), which is set to be launched by 2020.
"Today, the real question is not in regulator’s
hands," he explains. "It is in the industry’s
hand. Does the mobile industry really want to invest in 5G? I
was really struck by the comments in the
operators’ 5G manifesto."
The strategic vision for 5G
That report was released in July 2016. "In it, the mobile
industry looked at the strategic vision for 5G and 90% of it
was really positive and interesting. But at the end of the
document, it says: 'If Berec is still wanting to adopt a tough
guideline for net neutrality, maybe we will not invest in
5G.’ Where is the strategic vision of these guys?
Their plans only depend on what Berec decides?
That’s weird," says Soriano.
The French market, he claims, is an example of somewhere in
need of investment, with great prices but poor connectivity.
Despite being Europe’s third richest economy,
France was ranked only nineteenth out of 28 countries on the
European Union’s digital scoreboard. It ranked
22nd for broadband, with take-up at just 52% compared with the
Netherlands, which leads with 80%. The numbers are even worse
for France when it comes to next generation access, which was
ranked third from bottom. Just 43% of French people can access
next generation connectivity, and this number falls to 20% in
"We have fierce competition when it comes to pricing," he says.
"We consider prices OK in the sense that they
don’t need to become any lower. The question is do
we have sufficient investment and connectivity, and that is the
"If you look at the EU digital scoreboard, our rank is very
low. On fixed networks, we are in a very strange position as we
cannot massively reuse copper or the cable network, so we have
to roll out new infrastructure. Presently our rank is bad, and
it will take time, but we will have a better rank one
"We have to focus on that and give the maximum visibility to
all operators about FTTH. What we want on fibre networks is to
make sure all operators are on board. Orange is investing very
much – this is good. We are working in the frame of
our market review to make sure all operators have the ability
to also invest.
"On the mobile side, it is a very different story, as we have
no excuse to be as low as 21st out of 28. There is no obvious
reason for it, and we really want to reset the investment in
Soriano will end network sharing agreements in France, claiming
they stifle growth. This means Free Mobile, part of Iliad, will
end its agreement to use Orange’s network for 3G,
while a 2G/3G/4G network sharing agreement between Bouygues
Telecom and Altice’s Numericable-SFR must also
come to an end.
"We want to help operators who invest more than others to
monetise their advantage. The question is how can we give the
end user the relevant information so that the competition is
not just on price, but on quality and coverage." asks
Arcep will publish network coverage maps in open data for all
operators. Soriano hopes this will lead to comparison tools
that can highlight mobile coverage at home, on a
user’s commute or in the workplace.
"Last year we organised an auction of the 700MHz band. We
decided to impose on operators specific reporting on data
coverage on these railways. When we asked the two operators in
the discussions, they said: 'But it is terrible. If we have to
release this information, we will be obliged to
improve.’ So there are tools to push
Casting the net for neutrality
There are still big challenges on the horizon for regulators,
he admits, most notably around the topic of net
In his upcoming role as head of Berec, Soriano will be tasked
with seeing the implementation of the European
Commission’s proposals for a free internet
– known as net neutrality – and how
regulators in the 28 European member states enact these.
However, he claimed the task of European regulators has been
made much easier than in some countries, such as the US and
India, because the Commission has itself taken the lead on
this, bringing in regulations.
"We are very lucky in Europe because the responsibility of
defining the rules that have been enforced over net neutrality
has been taken by the politicians. Parliament, the European
Council and the Commission did the job by adopting a
regulation. In the US or India, there is no net neutrality act.
So in those countries, regulators have enforced this
themselves, but this can be challenged. The FCC is at court,
and even if they won, there is still a risk or hazard in their
"Now we are in the implementation stage. It will be a very
important part of next year’s Berec work
programme. We will do several things.
"We will adopt a common toolkit on how regulators should
monitor net neutrality, in terms of monitoring network
congestion and quality of service.
"All regulators should adopt before the end of June a national
report about the implementation of net neutrality so we can
issue a global report before the end of the year, giving a view
of the implementation by all NRAs.
"At a more informal level, we assumed in the guidelines that
regulators will try to work together when they are dealing with
the same cases. We will try to make sure the way things like
zero rating is dealt with is consistent. But we are politically
backed – some things are forbidden and some are
clearly authorised. But some are in the grey area and that is
the trickiest area, but at least we have a clearer
More complicated for Berec will be the issue of roaming. The EU
is set to introduce free roaming across member states by June
2017, but questions still remain about limits on how many days
users can roam for. The industry wants these limits to prevent
what it has labelled "digital tourism" where users buy SIMs in
cheaper countries, but then use them in more expensive ones for
the cheaper price.
"We understand that roaming is some kind of totem about what
Europe can deliver to people. It is a political choice. But on
the other hand we have to avoid an inconsistent implementation
of that. What we ask of the commission is that they be a little
bit clearer about the limits that operators can define. Because
if operators can do that, in some countries it will be 20 days,
or 80 days, or 100 days. Where is Europe?
"It may be good to pass the hot potato on to local regulators,
but with some limits, because otherwise the political issues
are bound to reappear if it is not harmonised. That is the
point we are making."
Born in 1975, he trained as an engineer in
telecoms, and graduated from École Polytechnique
2001: joined French Competition
2004: various positions at Arcep including
director of broadband market
2009-12: returned to French Competition
2012: head of cabinet of Fleur Pellerin, then
French minister for SMEs, innovation and digital economy; and
then special adviser to her as minister for foreign affairs and
international development, then as culture and
2015: appointed chairman of Arcep for a
2016: elected chair of Berec for 2017