5G network auction moving ahead, but “affordable” unlimited data still far off

The Czech Telecommunication Office (ČTÚ) is due to begin testing the 5G network in September and plans to auction 700 MHz frequencies in the second half of 2019, in hopes of attacking a fourth mobile operator to increase competition – and reduce rates for individual customers, who pay more on average than other Europeans. In the meantime, a lone campaigner for unlimited data access is waging a daily battle via social media, using humour as a weapon.

Illustrative photo: JESHOOTS / Pixabay, CC0Illustrative photo: JESHOOTS / Pixabay, CC0 Mobile data is more expensive in the Czech Republic than in most other EU countries, due to a lack of real competition, critics say. The telecoms office, ČTÚ, is actively seeking a fourth mobile-phone operator to rectify the situation, and will require the three incumbents – T-Mobile, O2 Czech Republic and Vodafone – to lease infrastructure for a certain period to a new operator to level the playing field.

In the meantime, Czech customers’ access to unlimited data is, well, limited at best. O2, for example, has been criticised for cutting the speed of transfer by 97% after a certain threshold is reached. Operators are not keen to offer truly unlimited data tariffs, in part due to the quality of the optical network.

Jiří Grund, photo: archive of Jiří GrundJiří Grund, photo: archive of Jiří Grund Revenues from a 5G auction could go to investing in that infrastructure. Jiří Grund, head of the Association of Mobile Network Operators, says such investment is sorely needed, due to the quality of the optical network.

“There are European countries where they have a much better optical backbone network that allows people to watch high-definition football, for example, and it is possible to streamline the optical network. In the Czech Republic last week, the Ministry of Industry and Trade decided to cut the planned 14 billion crown in subsidies for the construction of optical networks by half, to use it for other projects, because the state is not able to draw it and spend it.”

Deputy Industry Minister Ondřej Malý, among other critics, has said that existing mobile operators are merely giving lip service to building a “digital Czech Republic” while some in the sector, including former O2 Czech Republic head Tomáš Budník, openly question whether providing unlimited data would really help the digital economy to develop.

Budník argues that everyone can find a service which provides enough data at a price they are willing to pay. But according to Mr. Grund, the infrastructure in towns and villages, for example – where average incomes are lower – is especially problematic and needs state funding. In such cases, the free hand of the market is not going to provide a public good.

Jakub Strouhal, photo: archive of Jakub StrouhalJakub Strouhal, photo: archive of Jakub Strouhal That fact is driven home by the case of a tireless, lone campaigner for unlimited data access – Jakub Strouhal – who is getting long-term treatment for a muscular disorder in a Prague hospital without internet access.

Mr Strouhal calls operators on a daily basis and, under the hashtag #jsemneomezenej – “I am not limited” – is rallying others to his cause via humorous social media posts, all at rates for a few gigabytes of data, at twice the price unlimited service costs, for example, in neighbouring Poland.