An Interview with Erkki Liikanen
By Jeff Goldman, Tue Apr 15 00:00:00 GMT 2003

The European Commissioner for Enterprise and Information Society discusses mobile phone technology and the European Union.


Liikanen has been a leading figure in European politics for many years. In 1972, at the age of 21, he became a Member of the Finnish Parliament. From 1987-'90, Liikanen was Finland's Minister of Finance; and from 1990-'94, he served as the country's Ambassador to the European Union. Liikanen became a Member of the European Commission in 1995. In 1999, he was appointed to the newly-created post of Member of the European Commission responsible for Enterprise and Information Society.

TheFeature: How have regulation and standardization affected the adoption of mobile services throughout Europe?

Liikanen: A number of European initiatives were crucial to the development of Europe's leading position in mobile telecommunications. To begin with, a Council Directive made common frequencies available for the provision of GSM in all Member States. This was accompanied by a Recommendation on its deployment.

The European Commission encouraged the establishment of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, ETSI (www.etsi.org), which played a key role in providing a forum for rapid development of GSM standards. The European Commission ensured that a competitive mobile market developed, by removing monopolies in mobile network provision. Terminal equipment (handsets) had already been liberalized in 1988.

The successful introduction of 2nd generation mobile communication has shown that a coherent and long-term approach seems to pay off. This approach includes open and comprehensive research to identify suitable technology, a consensus-based standardization process leading to voluntary and open specifications, creating momentum of competition on services rather than on proprietary equipment, making available radio spectrum in sufficient quantity to allow for a sufficient number of mobile operators to compete, and the timely preparation of the regulatory environment in terms of transparent licensing principles.

In order to duplicate this success, back in 1989 the Commission launched a reflection on 3G in the scope of the RACE Programme. This allowed Europe to make a decisive contribution at the World Administrative Radio Conference, WARC 92, to allocate 160 MHz of spectrum for 3G, leading 10 years later to the UMTS Decision. The Commission also launched the UMTS Task Force, which led to the UMTS Forum.

Later, in the scope of the ACTS Programme, projects in the Mobile Domain, namely FRAMES and RAINBOW, made decisive contributions to the ETSI decision of 28 January 1998 on UMTS, and to the ITU on system architecture. FRAMES was at the origin of the two modes kept by ETSI, while RAINBOW proposed the split of Radio Dependent and Radio Independent parts of the network, which is critical to allow the coexistence of 2G and 3G networks and the smooth "evolution" from one to the other, as well as accommodating legacy terminals.

As with GSM, UMTS was conceived from the start as an open, evolving system, and with the UMTS Decision, the right regulatory environment was created. The actual implementation of 3G licensing was left to the Member States.

TheFeature: What kind of balance do you seek between national regulators and EU-wide regulation?

Liikanen: National regulators are best placed to regulate national markets. But market players stress the need for consistent regulation in all Member States.

The new regulatory framework, just recently adopted by the Parliament and the Council, provides mechanisms to deal with coordination of National Regulatory Authorities (NRA) actions, with the possibility of Commission intervention to block decisions about markets to be regulated, or operators with significant market power on those markets, that would be inconsistent with the internal market.

Where markets are Europe-wide, NRAs must act in a coordinated manner. The new regulatory framework does not anticipate a European regulator.

TheFeature: In terms of the regulatory framework, what specific challenges lie ahead for mobile phones? How do you anticipate such issues being handled?

Liikanen: The Commission has in March 2001 issued a Communication to Council and the European Parliament, analyzing the state of play of the rollout of 3G, and identifying four critical layers: the financial/economic environment, the fact that a new and untested service market is aimed at, remaining technical hurdles, and the fragmented regulatory conditions characterizing the 3G licensing processes in the Member States.

Subsequently, the Commission has within the frame of its responsibility launched a certain number of actions to ease the rollout of 3G, such as facilitating discussions on network infrastructure sharing, developing harmonized standards to specify the emission of base stations and terminals, launching accompanying research to validated new services (2.5G and 3G), launching an Action Plan for the introduction of IPv6, etc.

Most importantly, a new regulatory framework has been adopted by the European Parliament and Council which should in future avoid fragmentation of licensing conditions and offer the possibility of more coherent and policy objective driven spectrum resource planning at Community level.

For the mobile sector overall, the main challenges result from the change of the value chain as the service profile significantly broadens with the offering of advanced data services as opposed to voice telephony. Mobile operators will have to reassess their business strategy, and are likely to engage in new competitive arrangements through alliances with content providers, content aggregators, service providers, etc.

TheFeature: You often speak of working to bridge the digital divide throughout Europe, as well as the wealth gap between Europe and the US. How can mobile technology help to bridge that gap?

Liikanen: The digital divide is between those who have access to and use of communications services and those who do not. It is a broad issue, in other words, not limited to any specific technology.

Nevertheless, the traditional access model-a wired Internet connection and a PC-has shown some limitations in the EU, notably in the Southern countries, as illustrated in the benchmarking exercise related to e-readiness. This is not only a question of revenue-other factors, notably cultural aspects, may play an important role.

I am convinced that other technologies, such as wireless and mobile technologies as well as digital television, will offer alternative ways to access communications services and allow the spread of new services such as SMS, bringing new groups of citizens into the information society.

The new telecom regulatory package will contribute to the emergence of these new possibilities by providing a technologically neutral framework.

TheFeature: You said recently that wired broadband is the key issue for IT in Europe, indicating a shift away from focusing on 3G. What are your concerns and expectations for the next few years regarding 3G?

Liikanen: We do not understand 3G to be an alternative to broadband. Our persistent engagement towards 3G has been evident, therefore speaking of a shift away from focusing on 3G is not correct when characterizing our policy approach.

To leave no misunderstanding: it is important to do all efforts to pave the way for a rollout of 3G networks and services, and we clearly remain committed. This is not in contradiction or in competition with our plea to consider broadband access as a key issue for implementing the Information Society in Europe. On the contrary, we expect that broadband will involve a sufficient number of alternative access platforms-3G being one of them-to give the consumer a wide choice of services and usage conditions.

Each of these platforms will have specific characteristics which make them attractive, but they will also overlap with the service and usage offered by alternative platforms, which is good for competition reasons. It is clear that 3G will be one of the access platforms for broadband, and this is why we consider it essential to successfully finalize the rollout of 3G, so that it can be available when making broadband a reality.

TheFeature: You've said that content and services are the real issue in attracting more users to mobile services. Are there other key issues worth mentioning? What kinds of services and content do you feel will have the greatest impact on mobile phone penetration?

Liikanen: What will sell is attractive content and services. It is difficult to predict what content and services will drive the development of the mobile sector in future, because of the fundamental new features offered by high-bandwidth mobile data transmission. Also, it is not up to an administration to set out the choices, but rather to the market to determine what customers will accept, and under what conditions.

All mobile operators are currently intensively looking at this issue, and they are best placed to do so. What we presently identify as new features of the forthcoming mobile service generation are in particular the large variety of services and content (based on voice, data, sound, and still and moving images) which can be provided over mobile terminals. What is fascinating is the possibility to personalize the service profile to each customer's preferences.

What is also important is the global reach and availability of services, as the new mobile systems are, from the outset, planned from a global perspective; the possibility to add significant value to services and content by using location data; and the new opportunities offered by man/machine (e.g. transactional services, remote control of house appliances) or even machine/machine connections (automatic tracking of goods, automatic system surveillance, etc).

TheFeature: You've often spoken of using mobile broadband to facilitate e-government and e-learning. How do you see mobile access taking part in the future of e-learning and e-government?

Liikanen: The greatest benefits of mobile networks come from their potential to bring services directly to people, rather than the other way around. Services of general interest can all "move out" towards the individual and "move away" from monolithic centers. For example, health care provision can move from the hospital-centric model of the past to citizen-centered care at home and in the community.

Therefore, e-health gives citizens the possibility to live longer with an independent life at home, whilst at the same time, health costs can be better controlled. Similarly, e-government implies that public services are accessible for citizens and businesses at any time and from anywhere; it also enables increased participation of citizens in public matters and the public debate.

Governments have a responsibility in setting the pace and meeting high standards in the innovative use of mobile technology for the benefit of the people.

Finally, mobile broadband is needed to bring education outside the school building, to move the education system from immobility to e-mobility.

TheFeature: How can our readers make their voices heard in EU policy regarding mobile phones?

Liikanen: The Commission's Reform White Paper identified 'the e-Commission' as essential. One of the e-Commission areas is the improvement of governance through interactivity-establishing consultation and feedback mechanisms using the Internet.

This goes beyond mobile phones, of course: the Commission wants continuous access to the opinions and experiences of economic operators and citizens from across the EU. This will help us improve policy making, implementation and monitoring by making them more inclusive. More information on Interactive Policy Making can be found at the 'Your Voice iEurope' site and at my own web-site.

Later this year we will also see the first of a new generation of portals on the EU's website, EUROPA. This first 'EUROPA Second Generation' portal will focus on the Information Society, putting all EU activities, policies, and programs in a user-friendly, unbureaucratic 'thematic' structure. Debate and discussion on all aspects of the Information Society-including the future of mobile communications-will be encouraged through a range of interactive services.

TheFeature: Where do you see mobile technology heading in Europe over the next decade? What other challenges, regulatory and otherwise, do you anticipate down the road?

First we should look at where we stand today, and how we got here.

The key role in achieving the prominent position of Europe in mobile technology was of course played by the industry. Cooperation within the EU's programs for research and technology development (RTD) was very important to explore longer-term technology options and to build common views.

Critical mass of RTD, together with a consensus-building approach, an early identification of the spectrum requirements, and a close articulation with policy objectives, have led to the establishment of standards which are today adopted by a majority of countries worldwide (e.g. GSM, UMTS, DVB).

Research at the EU level has catalyzed the introduction of a wide range of digital services delivered through a variety of wireless platforms, optimized for different classes of users, services and environments, with different business models, evolution perspectives and maturity status-including cellular systems, digital broadcasting, wireless local area network, satellite systems, and fixed wireless access.

Then the question is: Where should European research in these fields head over the next few years? It is the right moment to ask, because the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for Research gets underway at the end of this year.

The foreseen evolution of the wireless/mobile landscape, placing the users at the center of a rich, personalized, and seamless connectivity environment, represents a very complex and multifaceted research landscape. A variety of R&D domains should be addressed in a complementary and coordinated manner, including at least:

  • A user-centric domain: enhancing user interaction capabilities with a wealth of context-aware (e.g., location-based) applications, of terminals and devices, across a variety of environments (public and private, personal and corporate) requires a careful assessment of user needs and user acceptability of the supported services, and not of the underlying technologies. Services and devices need to be easy to use and configure through feature-rich, natural interfaces transparent to the underlying technology;

  • A device-centric domain: the proliferation of IP-enabled wireless devices, appliances and terminals, operating in a variety of environments (home, car, public transportation, office, mall, conference center, airports), raises the challenge of supporting secure ad hoc connectivity and reconfiguration in a multiplicity of environments;

  • A service-centric domain: seamless and context-aware delivery of services calls for a clear understanding of the middleware requirements, allowing for adapting content delivery to the underlying network/device capability and to the user preferences as a function of the user context. Open architectures and open APIs are necessary to open the development of applications to competition;

  • A network-centric domain: the variety of network environments, from piconets to satellites, implies that each wireless access technology has to be able to evolve independently but be based on a common IP platform and fully support end-to-end IP connectivity, to meet the challenges (in terms of cost and bandwidth) of the core networks, and to provide for seamless integration with other wireless access technologies insofar as is economically sensible, and as market demand arises.


  • Reconfigurability is horizontal to all these domains, and should be further researched with the objective of getting wide acceptance at standardization level, particularly in what concerns network and service aspects, and arriving at a clear understanding of the regulatory implications, notably from the security point of view, of the wide diffusion of this technology.

    Optimization of scarce spectrum resources is a fundamental aspect that also requires further work on dedicated technologies, notably in the field of dynamic spectrum allocation/usage, eventually leading to spectrum sharing; novel, more efficient air interfaces; joint source and channel coding and modulation; and data compression.

    The coming together of several technological developments-ever-increasing microprocessor cost/performance ratios; efficient, smart power sources; low-power displays; wearable multimedia devices, onboard computing systems; nano-sensors; miniaturized body implants; and so on-will extend wireless connectivity and foster the emergence of body and personal area networks. This also opens new perspectives for seamless interconnection with health, transport and home automation information systems, through terrestrial or satellite-based infrastructures, with significant social and economic benefits.

    The implementation of a 'wireless ambient intelligence' scenario-which means that computing power and wireless networking can be embedded and is accessible everywhere in our living and working environment-opens a new range of socioeconomic issues that should be addressed in order to fully assess the societal, economic and industrial impact of the wider deployment and convergence of a multiplicity of technologies.

    Finally, this work should take into account the international context, where major initiatives have already been launched, notably in Japan (4G plan and the rollout of IPv6) and ITU (development of a vision for systems beyond 3G). Spectrum issues (e.g., allocations, interference, EMC, etc.) require that the work in this domain takes into account the work of European and international institutions.

    It's Regulation Week on TheFeature. Be sure to check back daily for original reports, interviews, analysis and discussion covering the mobile data industry!

    Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.