The delayed rollout of 5G in Belgium is a clear example of the regulatory and political difficulties facing 5G. In Belgium, 5G has become a source of conflict between different layers of government and a cause of public health concern, which has led to repeated delays in auctioning the 5G spectrum.
Belgium is a federal state with significant devolution of policy to regional governments. Telecom policy is set at the federal, national level, but media policy remains at the regional level.
At the beginning of 2019, a political conflict developed between the federal and regional governments of Belgium over the proceeds of the auction of the 5G spectrum in the 3.6 GHz band. Traditionally, proceeds from telecom auctions are divided between those two layers, with 80% going to the federal government, and 20% to their regional counterparts. But for 5G, the Flemish government (from the Northern, Dutch-speaking region of Belgium) disagreed with that division. They argued that the percentage for regional governments should be higher because of the high media content of the communications on 5G networks.
A political standstill ensued, which made organising the auction impossible before the regional and federal elections of May 2019. Afterwards, it took until 1 October 2020 to form a new federal government that could organise an auction.
This delay caused Belgium to miss the 2020 deadlines for 5G auctions mentioned in the EEC (European Economic Community) and 5G Action Plans of the EU.
Flemish political parties in the meantime agreed to put aside their differences and allow the 5G auction to go ahead, and simply put the proceeds into a blocked bank account until the division between federal and regional level could be decided at a later date. The actual auction will most likely take place in 2021.
Meanwhile, one operator, Proximus, already launched 5G in the 2.1 GHz spectrum band (currently mainly used for 3G). Nevertheless, this version of 5G is deployed on previous generation hardware, and is relatively limited. It also could not be introduced in Brussels due to strict radiation policies.
Regulations around the amount of radiation telecom equipment can emit is set regionally in Belgium. This means the regions of Flanders (the Dutch-speaking area in the North), Brussels (comprising the area around the city of Brussels), and Wallonia (the French-speaking area in the South) have different rules for radiation.
The rules are strict in the entire country, and outperform the ICNIRP norm. This is especially so in Brussels, where the radiation requirements do not allow 5G to be deployed in the city, according to operators.
In 2019 there was a political agreement in the Brussels government to change these rules during a pilot project, but it was blocked by the Brussels environment minister, Céline Fremault. She declared that she would not change the rules, and that the inhabitants of Brussels were not “guinea pigs”. This mirrored comments from anti-5G activists, who were putting pressure on the minister to block the regulation change.
Since then, the question of radiation regulation has remained open in Brussels and it is still unclear how it will further develop.
After Proximus introduced 5G in a number of Flemish and Walloon towns, they received heavy criticism from local politicians over the supposed health effects of 5G, which led them to backtrack on deploying the new network in the South of the country.
To compensate for the auction delays, BIPT, the Belgian telecom regulator, decided to give operators temporary 5G spectrum, which was given to five companies in August of 2020. One company had also bought the 3.6 GHz spectrum before it was designated as a 5G pioneer band, and was able to use this to offer wireless services.
5G on these frequencies has so far mainly been deployed in business use cases, such as in the Port of Antwerp, and less for consumer mobile internet.
Security of 5G networks
In June 2020, Belgium decided to implement new rules for securing its 5G networks, which included making a distinction between the core and radio parts of mobile networks, and excluding high-risk vendors from the core part. Operators Proximus and Orange, in turn, voluntarily decided to only work with the European vendors, Nokia and Ericsson, for both the core and radio parts of their future 5G networks.
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