According to Petr Gažík, it is bizarre for people to reject 5G networks while wanting to use fast internet. O2 CEO Peter Gažík wonders if 5G mobile networks will bring something tangible to the regular customer, if it pays for Slovak operators to invest in them, and if Chinese companies will be able to build them in Slovakia.
What prank about 5G networks got you off your chair?
I don’t remember any prank. However, I believe that the coronavirus epidemic has spread into a kind of infodemic, an information overload and misinformation. 5G networks, which may be unknown information to many people, have not escaped this misinformation. Even the name 5G may sound mysterious to some. Although it indicates a fifth generation, some may feel that “G” is related to overload, for example. And all this can lead to concise thinking. In some ways, these discussions seem bizarre to me.
In those long weeks, when many of us had to stay home, in addition to the ability to make good coffee at home, the ability to have a functional connection proved to be extremely valuable. When it erupted in its entirety on March 13, I saw the attack on telecommunications networks. Everyone called, everyone had to have access to the Internet, people started watching movies on streaming platforms to a large extent. Therefore, I want to believe that everyone is aware of this basic need for connection. At the same time, 5G networks are doing nothing but responding to the ever-increasing demand for mobile data transmission.
So opponents of 5G networks do not understand that this is also in their interest?
In English there is a saying: Not In My Back Yard. It expresses a situation in which people are not against a technology or the construction of a building, as long as it doesn’t affect with their property or interests. We would like to live in the world in year zero, but at the same time to have the technologies of 2020.
However, these things cannot be combined. If we want to use more data as a company, we need to modernize telecom networks. Carrier pigeons will not send data for us. You probably remember the December tragedy in Prešov, when there was a gas explosion in a block of flats.
Our transmitter was located on that building. After the explosion, it was not possible to call there through our network for a short time. What was interesting was that the municipality of Prešov had set strict conditions long before, when it had to allow the installation of base stations for mobile operators. Prešov’s standards were stricter than national standards. As a result, fewer stations were built there, the network was not so dense and, when the tragedy occurred, this manifested itself.
That was the irony. The Prešov municipality, which had been fighting the operators for many years, was convinced in this situation of the importance of telecom networks.
Opponents of 5G networks set fire to transmitters in the UK and Italy. Are you afraid that this can happen to you too?
I wish you would never ask me such a question. I want to believe that this is not how a civil society works in 2020, to react in such a way to technologies that can bring enormous value. Here in Slovakia, we have been building a highway to Košice for thirty years. Thanks to the operators, we have at least information highways here, thanks to which the people of Bratislava can stay in constant contact with the people of Košice.
Therefore, I want to believe that each of us can be aware of the value of these information highways, and we in Slovakia will not have to address such a topic.
But the reality is that in western countries, transmitters were set on fire, whether it was 5G transmitters or older transmitters, which may have been mistaken for 5G. So, you’re worried it might happen to you too?
Of course, we are not satisfied with what is happening. I certainly do not want to fight against the opponents of the 5G network, in fact with our customers. Our goal is not to give anyone reason to doubt that everything we do in this area will be with the utmost respect for all the standards set by the state, including those we have set ourselves. I don’t know now if this development can get to the point where it will require a communication effort.
If this were to happen, which is an absurd notion, we would certainly not remain passive and resign ourselves to it, but there would be a clear misunderstanding of what a telecom network really is.
There are no 5G networks in Slovakia yet, except for a small test station in Banská Bystrica. Are we behind other countries?
We are doing well in terms of coverage and capacity of mobile networks. You may have noticed that when you get somewhere in London, you often have to keep track of data speeds, because the networks are congested. In Slovak cities, the situation is much better in terms of usage. As for 5G networks, some countries are already building these networks, but, for example, compared to the Czech Republic or Poland, we are at the same level.
I am a regular customer who reads news, follows social networks and watches videos on Youtube from the mobile phone. According to Martin Rakús from STU, 5G will not bring me anything new. Was he right?
A short answer would be “not now.” As operators we don’t like to use the term “regular user”. We simply expect that when everyone connects to the Internet at eight o’clock in the evening to download movies or browse websites, the Internet will work the same as at four o’clock in the morning. We build mobile networks with the ability to stabilize peak demand for all customers, even if it should be only half an hour a day.
I can go back to what I experienced during the pandemic. Customer demand has not been huge in the sense that we never experienced anything like it before. It was comparable to how New Year’s Eve works, for example. However, it took a long time because people stayed in the house all day. In such tense situations, it is important that not only you but also your relatives have a stable connection to the other end of the country so that you can communicate.
So, to return to the question: you will not feel the benefit of 5G networks immediately, except for the speed, capacity and stability of the connection. But you will feel it in stressful situations. Because even then you will have the internet at the same speed and at the same quality.
Experts anticipate the main benefit of 5G networks will be felt by the industry. There is talk about the emergence of autonomous cars, about the so-called intelligent solutions for traffic management, about remote surgery. Is this true?
Of course, we follow these trends, but this is not a question primarily for us. We see one crucial thing, which is the growth curve of mobile data consumption. And this consumption increases by tens of percent every year and there is no reason not to grow at this rate. Therefore, it is irrelevant to us whether autonomous cars, public administration or healthcare will increase this demand. It turns out that more and more customers will need a high and stable transfer rate.
In Slovakia, the telecom office is currently holding an auction for 5G frequencies. They set the starting price at EUR 16 million, and successful bidders must commit, for example, to cover at least 97% of the territory of each regional city through the 5G network by the end of 2025. Are these conditions correct?
Given the circumstances, we cannot comment on any issue related to this auction. From our point of view, the process of preparing the frequency allocation has gone smoothly and we do not see any obstacles to frequency allocation.
What is the interest of Slovak operators in building 5G networks?
I can’t comment on this aspect either. In general, all relevant entities closely monitor this frequency allocation process. From the discussions on social networks, it seems that 5G is something completely new. But it’s not really like that. Imagine driving a car that is less than a few years old. Then you get married, the children will be born, so you will replace the car with a bigger one, even of the same brand. With 5G it’s the same story.
We are not talking about anything new in terms of safety or health risks. It is a technological update of current technologies. Finally, the frequencies in the 700 MHz band are nothing new, as they have been used for years for television broadcasts.
We are talking about the 700 MHz band, which is used today for digital terrestrial broadcasting.
Current frequencies are becoming more and more loaded, as we saw during the coronavirus pandemic, when we recorded an increase in usage by 30 percent. We have had these 700 MHz frequencies here for years, Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial (DVB-T) uses them. Until now, they could have been used with even greater electromagnetic radiation than 5G networks, which, due to the denser infrastructure of the transmitters, will operate in optimal parameters.
However, you will use another band, in the European Union, the 3.4 – 3.8 GHz bandwidth has been reserved for 5G networks.
We need this bandwidth just to get more capacity. In this band, operators will add new transmitters, as needed. Again, this will not be the case today. For example, Bratislava is relatively well covered, but there are also locations in Bratislava where the speed is lower. So, we must add a frequency or install another antenna there, depending on the needs. And 5G networks will gradually follow this process.
Are there any issues with 5G networks that you consider justified?
I have no idea, so far, no relevant study has been presented to confirm the health risks. If they start building the 5G network here, it will be under the strict supervision of institutions such as the Public Health Office, to which our entire company has reported in the last three months.
None of our base stations can be put into operation without the consent of public health specialists, who must confirm that there are no safety and health issues. As mentioned, the electromagnetic radiation in which 5G networks will operate will often be lower than in the case of other technologies. Even ordinary daylight has many times more energy than 5G.
At the same time, more and more electrosmog will appear, as more transmitters are installed.
All this will depend on the request made by the company for the speed and capacity of data transfer. If usage spikes, the antennas will multiply faster to be as close as possible to our SIMs.
How many antennas will be installed in Slovakia?
This process will go smoothly. I certainly can’t imagine helicopters flying simultaneously to install new mass antennas. Once the frequencies are allocated, I assume that we, as operators, will start implementing 5G on the existing infrastructure in the first stage. We will only increase speed and capacity. This is also the most efficient solution for us, rather than building completely new base stations.
So, it is too soon to say when the installation of 5G transmitters will start?
It will happen organically, in part it will be a natural process of renewing the current network and also a logical effort to meet demand. Each technology has a lifespan, so when the current one expires, we can replace it with one that will already be adapted to 5G. In a few years, there will be virtually no other option, because the station manufacturers will rise to a level and will not sell older equipment.
Consider also the fact that LTE technology for high-speed internet came to us six years ago. Now, after six years, the penetration of LTE phones in our network is only 67 percent.
Do you have any motivation to invest heavily in 5G? Ondrej Macko of the TouchIT portal told Hospodárske Noviny last year that operators have yet to receive investments for 4G networks.
We are certainly not in a situation where we would be financially exhausted due to 4G networks. In some European countries, this problem has arisen with the allocation of 3G frequencies. The groups were allocated there quite expensively, it took a long time to build them, and when 3G networks finally expanded, 4G technology came quickly. But with 4G networks, this story has not been repeated, there the frequencies have been put up for auction at much more affordable prices.
Does this mean that 4G networks will soon reach their limits?
They are gradually reaching their limits in terms of speed and capacity.
Gregor Rozinaj from STU told us in an interview that the operators will connect to 5G and build transmitters together. If cities have to be dense, it would be strange to always have three different transmitters – for each operator separately.
What is certain is that in Slovakia there is not yet a complete case of network exchange between operators, but in countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain, this is starting to be the standard. Sharing can be a way for operators to make their investments more efficient and faster. So, yes, it can happen that a station is installed and each operator has its own antenna or another sharing model on it. However, all this will only become apparent after the frequency band auction, when it will be clear how the cards are distributed.
And then the question arises as to who will build this network. If I’m not mistaken, there are only three possible suppliers in Europe, one of them being a Chinese operator.
There are four possible suppliers in Europe. Two European suppliers – Nokia and Ericsson, and two Chinese operators – ZTE and Huawei. In addition to these operators, the Korean company Samsung also owns these technologies, but has mainly focused on markets outside Europe.
As for Chinese operators, there are fears that if they build these networks, the Chinese could hack them over time. Therefore, the US government has decided not to allow them on its market at all, the German authorities want to check them as best they can. Do you have a clear idea if Chinese companies will do this?
There are no relevant guidelines from our state or the European Union on this issue, the decision is left to the market. As a company administrator, I can make decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. I have to decide what will bring the most value and benefits to customers, the company or its shareholders.
If Chinese companies win, we can expect them to reduce the humiliating price.
We can’t say that, and I don’t want to have a discussion about whether China “yes” or “no.” I’m talking about the total value we can get, and that value includes, for example, security, which is our alpha and omega. We will consider all these aspects.
You will be in a very special position on this issue. Your majority shareholder Petr Kellner has significant business activities in China, where he lends money to people through Home Credit. Could you afford to reject Chinese companies?
To this question, I can only repeat what I said to your colleague Čikovsky in a previous interview. O2 in Slovakia is a subsidiary of O2 in the Czech Republic, the majority shareholder of which is a company owned by Mr Petr Kellner, which, due to the separation of O2 Czech Republic, i.e. the division of a commercial and infrastructure entity, does not exercise managerial or management rights in it. So, in the end, we make completely free and autonomous decisions.
Interview by: Vladimír Šnídl