Q: The three Baltic states signed a memorandum of understanding for an experimental 5G corridor, Via Baltica, to test self-driving vehicles. When will the corridor be up and running?
A: First, we have to allocate the spectrum for the network. In Estonia, we want to auction licences for the 3.6-gigahertz frequency band by the end of the year and advance as fast as possible. Also, as Via Baltica we are applying for funding from the EU. Within this context, corporate projects are ideal for this occasion. But there is more to do with 5G. We are trying to create a [Baltic] data union, and work on a joint vision towards artificial intelligence [AI]. The commercial rollout for 5G networks is set for 2025.
Q: How big is the investment on the Estonian side?
A: Laying down the optical cables is not very expensive – it’s about $20m to $30m – but maintenance costs are about $10m per year, as a rough estimate.
Q: Operational expenditure is high, and an economic model for 5G networks has yet to be worked out…
A: Yes, but this has been the case for all the rollouts we have had so far. The same happened, for example, with 4G networks. Our civil servants had to answer questions about the reasons we needed them, and now we are all using them. We see many potential use cases for 5G networks. It’s a good opportunity for driverless mobility. There is a potential business case, and I’m sure it will emerge as long as we provide the right infrastructure and the right business climate, in partnership with private companies.
Q: Baltic countries have strengthened their ties, but the common governance of certain projects remains challenging, as shown by hiccups in the development of the Rail Baltica project for a regional railway network. What are the governance challenges that Via Baltica brings along?
A: Rail Baltica is a more complicated project – there are many parties involved, from the member states all the way down to local municipalities. Via Baltica is an easier challenge, [and it is] perhaps the investment of the century for the Baltic states. Scandinavian telecommunications operators are hungry to develop new services. Their interest in the project is very high, which represents a good [opportunity] for private investment into 5G connections, and we are trying to make the most of this market momentum.
Q: Estonia is also leading the digital revolution in the public sphere, with programmes such as the electronic residency initiative setting global examples of digital public governance. How will 5G networks further power your policymaking and public governance?
A: One of my priorities as minister is trying to build on the existing digital e-governance platform and trying to make sure that Estonia as a country runs this platforms, and that the private sector is able to build different applications on this platform.
What is necessary for this is open data, so that the government puts forward its data and makes sure there are good conditions for the business sector to utilise it to create new business models, to use this data in the context of AI and machine learning.
The other pillar is open source code policy. For all government policies the source code is public, so that we enable the private sector to begin partnerships with the government to improve public services, and come up with new solutions and suggestions.
The Estonian people see new benefits in moving forward with digitalisation, and we are pushing very hard in partnership with Estonian industry so that digitalisation can really [enhance] our competitiveness. We see potential advances and use cases in the industrial sector, transportation and e-health, where we are trying to build next-generation e-solutions for healthcare.