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The European Union warned member states Tuesday to free up the airwaves for new, super-fast fourth generation mobile networks and threatened legal action against those that deliberately block the process.
The European Commission's vice president in charge of digital development, Neelie Kroes, accused some national regulators of braking the rollout of the new 4G networks, which promise lightning fast connections for mobile devices.
"How can it be that there are more 4G subscriptions in South Korea than the entire EU?" she asked at a news conference after meeting with telecommunications operators at the world's biggest annual mobile conference in Barcelona, Spain.
"How can 17 EU countries still lack 4G? I can't explain that. When you compare that with Korea, Japan and a couple of other countries in the Far East and of course in the United States."
If national governments ignored the problem, European networks could "collapse", she warned.
"We are going to start using our EU treaty powers to change the situation," Kroes warned.
An EU official said this could mean taking infringement action against national operators that for example abused health concerns, such as spectrum radiation regulations, to avoid meeting agreed European deadlines for 4G.
"Some regional authorities are 100 times stricter than our recommended safety standards for 4G. That is not protecting people. Come on, it is just killing our economy," Kroes said.
"We are shooting ourselves in the foot."
The EU digital chief warned member states not to try to repair their budget deficits by extracting money from auctions for use of the 4G spectrum without investing the proceeds in the network.
Consumers would end up paying the price for such policies through higher telephone bills, she said.
Europe has fallen well behind the United States, Japan and South Korea in the rollout of fourth-generation networks, also known as Long Term Evolution, or LTE.
By mid 2012, 26.5 million people were subscribing to LTE services, said a report this week by industry analysts IDATE.
US operators led by Verizon Wireless had 13 million customers on the new LTE networks, South Korean operators had 7.5 million subscribers and Japanese operators 3.4 million, it said.
But the report, released on the opening day of the February 25-28 World Mobile Congress, showed the biggest users of LTE networks in Europe were Germany and Sweden with just 300,000 each, while Austria came in next with 180,000.
Kroes said the telecommunications sector was crying out for the benefits of the European single market.
"I would say that the single market in general is the crown jewel of the European Union," she said.
"But as we are aware, talking about telecoms it is not there at all."