"The impact of these types of networks goes far beyond what is perceived today"
In 1991, 2G was born, the first truly digital network, followed ten years later by 3G in 2001 and then 4G in 2010. These mobile communication networks were quickly adopted by people around the world and each in turn brought considerable innovations. If we think of the tenfold increase in speed with each new generation, 4G, for example, has enabled the unification of mobile communications and Internet access, made possible in particular by the use of IP (Internet Protocol), and then by the introduction of the iPhone in 2008, which paved the way for the smartphone industry, these technological objects that have become, in just a few years, the most sold and used in the world.
5G also promises a sixfold increase in speed, but above all new communication infrastructures capable of profoundly changing a large number of sectors in industry, services and transport.
"Increased throughput is only a limited part of the purpose of these new networks. There is a whole set of contributions that will be crucial for the industrial fabric, for services and for the control of critical infrastructures. But for the moment, the general public does not have precise information on these functionalities, which are not yet fully developed," explains François Baccelli.
A major global effort
The evolution of mobile communications networks is based on major innovations in physics (focusing of electromagnetic waves), in communications theory (information theory, coding), in mathematics (stochastic geometry, scheduling), in software (virtualisation, orchestration) and in electronics. The architecture of networks, the organisation of cells and the collection network, and the distribution of functions between the core and the periphery of the network have been transformed over the generations of communications networks, allowing today, in particular, beyond the increase in speed, the respect of time constraints for the routing of messages and the development of new concepts such as computing and services at the periphery of networks.
This worldwide effort is channelled through global standards defined by various standardisation bodies, including the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Program), an international organisation that successfully brings together industrialists and researchers in the field. All these players are working to define the communication infrastructures of the future, allowing interoperability between all devices, in all countries.
There is a global effort behind the evolution of mobile communications networks. It is important to note that there is exceptional creativity in this area today, in everything from multi-user information theory to virtualisation and the development of new services at the network edge.
Research Director at the Inria Centre in Paris and coordinator of the report
A limited number of actors
However, while some countries are taking the subject head-on, establishing long-term strategies with massive investments, France, which was very strong in the 1990s, has lost skills over the past thirty years, both in research and in industry, explains the report, which points the finger at "the weakness of the ANR's current calls on this subject". "We need to develop our academic and industrial creativity in this area," says François Baccelli.
The same applies to Europe, which must define a strategy that takes into account its strong points (notably the presence of two world-class manufacturers, Nokia and Ericsson) and its weak points (in the field of circuits and services). "We need to understand the consequences for the economy as a whole of a situation in which we no longer have control over future network infrastructures," says François Baccelli.
An obvious sovereignty issue
It is therefore necessary, according to the report, to reconsider the issue of sovereignty in this sector at European level. This is based on three main aspects: sovereignty in the field of equipment (terminals, base stations, antennas), sovereignty in the field of data, beyond the data exchanged by users (geolocation data, data collected by sensors and actuators) and finally sovereignty in the field of systems (network control system itself, siloed systems for the various types of industrial sectors and the associated software).
The industrial situation is simple, since the number of European equipment manufacturers is limited. We must therefore ensure the support of these players, which means strengthening the scientific creativity of our academic fabric in this field.
However, he warns of the importance of finding a real balance between industry support and the development of a fully independent scientific capacity: "When we started working on this report, we discovered that many of the studies published on mobile communications networks are biased, guided by individual interests. It is essential to have independent working groups that can answer these questions, to really understand how they work".
Finally, the report calls for support for the European Commission's current effort to identify a list of critical sectors for which it is imperative to go beyond the laws of the market in their current form and to recommend public intervention: "The first sectors identified are aeronautics, space and defence (speech by Commissioner Thierry Breton on 21 February 2021); it is urgent to add telecommunications to them," the report states.
Digital sovereignty is only one of nine issues examined in the report. Other issues addressed in the report and currently widely debated in society include energy balance and the impact on health.
Composition of the working group of the Académie des sciences report
- Serge ABITEBOUL (member of the Académie des sciences, research director at the Institut national de recherche en informatique et automatique (Inria), member of the College of ARCEP)
- Daniel ANDLER (member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, professor emeritus at Sorbonne University)
- François BACCELLI (member of the Académie des sciences, research director at the Institut national de recherche en informatique et automatique (Inria), École normale supérieure)
- Gérard BERRY (member of the Académie des sciences, professor emeritus at the Collège de France)
- Catherine BRÉCHIGNAC (Honorary Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Sciences)
- Sébastien CANDEL (former president of the Academy of Sciences, professor emeritus at Centrale Supélec, Université Paris-Saclay)
- Mathias FINK (member of the Academy of Sciences, professor at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI Paris - PSL))
- Éric MOULINES (member of the Académie des sciences, professor at the École polytechnique)