The new telecommunications standard “5G” promises hyper-fast connections (up to 20,000 Mbit/s), less lag, or “latency,” and the ability to connect many devices to the internet without bogging down. Seen by many as the backbone of the emerging digital economy, supporters see it as essential for interconnected factories and the basis for increasingly autonomous traffic. Others fear 5G’s geopolitical risks, as in recent international rows over Chinese-made Huawei hardware and infrastructure.
Either way, Austria has decided to be at the vanguard. It could be a game changer.
The most ambitious is the “A1 5Giganetz,” to be launched January 25 by the country’s largest telecom provider, with products available from January 27. They will be joining competitor Magenta which launched a set of 25 local 5G installations in March 2019, shortly after the auction of the first frequency licenses. The third provider, Drei, experimented with pre-5G and 5G technology in Vienna’s Seestadt Aspern. All three are pioneers in Europe.
For the A1 5Giganetz, a total of 129 communities will host 350 5G installation sites, starting with Kitzbühel and including Vienna, Linz, St. Pölten, Amstetten, Wels, Zell am See, Kaprun, Dornbirn, Bregenz, Graz, Leoben, Klagenfurt, Wolfsberg, Villach and Hermagor. A1 is investing around €450 million per year in the expansion and upgrade of its digital infrastructure.
Once live, A1 will have the largest 5G network in the country, with more than twice as many stations as the rival networks of Magenta and Drei combined.
Focus on rural regions
Austria’s government is also actively involved in upgrading the country’s digital infrastructure. “Our goal is to make Austria one of the leading digital nations in Europe,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on January 22 “This requires nationwide broadband coverage throughout Austria. We want rural areas in particular to benefit from this development.”
The project is clearly a point of pride for the new government. And Minister for Digitization and the Economy Margarete Schramböck, could not help but make a comparison that is bound to play well in the Alpine Republic: “The worst network in Austria is better than the best network in Germany,” she explained. When it comes to digital public administration, Austria ranks third in the EU, offering, among other things, the “Digital ID platform,” which should be available by the end of the year.
This pilot project will allow citizens to store their driving licenses, registration papers or identity cards on their smartphones. Schramböck also wants to present a “Digital Action Plan,” including a “digital master plan for the education sector” and a registration tool for newly accredited apprenticeships in the digital sector.
Local digital ambassadors
There is also close cooperation with local municipalities, which are to be given a so-called “Digi Ambassador,” i.e. a person responsible for the communities’ digital agendas. This is in line with Austria’s traditional focus on spending substantial amounts on infrastructure in rural regions early on, something encouraged by Federalist constitution and strong local identities.
“I don’t want any digitalization losers, either in society or in the economy,” Schramböck insisted. She sees a particular need for catch up with pensioners, so they too can “be among the digital winners.” The government’s program also includes measures to help digitalize the operations of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). According to government figures, 24,000 companies in Austria are already digital, employing more than 300,000 employees.
In the new Conservative-Green administration, Elisabeth Köstinger, Minister of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism, will oversee the expansion of broadband internet and the 5G network. Like her colleagues, Köstinger stressed the potential of new technologies to close the gaps between cities and countryside, calling the internet “the freight route of the 21st century,” by making job opportunities and “teleworking” accessible wherever you live.
Whether the 5G network can live up to the hype in the coming years remains to be seen, but either way, Austria’s future is decidedly broadband.