Q&A: Finland’s transport and communications minister on 5G, smart regulation, and mobile data

Finland Minister of Transport and Communications, Timo Harakka. (Photo courtesy of Laura Kotila)

Long before the Apple iOS and Android operating systems came to dominate the smartphone market, the early days of the mobile phone era were pioneered by Nordic telecom companies. Finland’s Nokia, in particular, was a household name worldwide before the advent of the iPhone or Google Pixel.

This small Nordic country did not achieve global success in the telecommunications industry by accident, however. The Finnish government stood behind the development of a robust telecom sector that has become one of the country’s leading exports.

Today Finland is a global player with cutting-edge companies working on all manners of the new digital economy, from 5G to edge computing. Finland’s minister of transport and communications, Timo Harakka, visited Washington state this week to lead a trade delegation of nine companies that paid visits to Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Along the way he signed a memorandum of understanding with Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck to foster deeper collaboration between Finland and the Evergreen state on smart port technology, data and mobile connectivity, and environmentally-friendly economic growth.

GeekWire sat down with Harakka on Thursday at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. A former journalist turned politician in Finland’s Social Democratic Party, Harakka is fairly tech savvy himself having had the foresight to register the URL www.meta.fi before Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s recent name change, though Harakka was mum on his plans for the coveted web address.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GeekWire: Why combine the portfolios of transport and communications under one ministry?

Harakka: Networks and infrastructure. Our people are working both on physical infrastructure and digital infrastructure. We’ve been responsible for making regulation as smart as possible to help telcos and other partners build robust and resilient networks, as well as make possible the mobile data environment that has been very successful in Finland over the last few decades. Our ministry can pat itself on its back because recently our citizenry used more mobile data in absolute numbers than Germany, which is something like 14 times bigger than Finland.

GeekWire: The U.S. has the slowest average 5G speed of the world’s leading 15 markets for this technology and telcos here sometimes face local opposition to building 5G infrastructure. Can you share some lessons learned from Finland’s experience with 5G rollout?

Harakka: We’ve always had a very progressive policy on frequencies. A competitive environment produces a virtuous cycle where you will then also have services at an affordable price. We’ve continued this approach with 5G because we believe being at the forefront of this technology will be very beneficial. In consumer terms, it’s just an improvement on 4G. But the big qualitative leap is with industry and businesses, because that enables a whole different IoT environment, where you can really take advantage of big data and AI in real time with these much faster connections.

GeekWire: How does Finland’s progressive policy on frequencies translate to the implementation of the physical 5G infrastructure?

Harakka: Public-private cooperation is the key. Our responsibility as the public part of this cooperation is to ensure that there is smart, enabling, and innovation-friendly regulation, then we leave it up to a fierce competition to build the connections. In a small country like Finland we still have three major telco networks competing with each other. They pretty much set up the whole architecture. We already have two-thirds of the population covered in 5G.

(Nokia Photo)

GeekWire: Once 5G infrastructure is in place, do you find that it sells itself and proof of concept overcomes potential opposition?

Harakka: Finns became accustomed to mobile data way before the rest of the world. Whether you’re in a park or even out in the forest, you can always check your email and consult Google Maps. Consumers have come to expect this level of connectivity. They expect to be able to watch Netflix in one room and HBO in the other room. This is very much a national way of using the internet. It works the other way around as well. Telco infrastructure has spawned hundreds of companies, not just Nokia, that are world-class in their own niche of digital data technologies.

GeekWire: Finland is already seeking to be a first mover in 6G. What is the promise of that technology?

Harakka: The world’s leading RDI ecosystem has been built around the so-called 6G flagship in Oulu, a northern Finnish town where Nokia was very prominent. It’s a collaboration between academia, the state, and private companies, which is very typical of Finland. At the same time, it’s very quickly become a global collaboration. There are 1,000 organizations within that ecosystem already. Keysight Technologies and InterDigital are just two of the American partners in this research and development community.

They are already building their first 6G test network to be an even more efficient, robust, and resilient network that is secure by design. It will upend the promise of 5G, which already makes big data possible. And now we will be able to have real time big data and also AI solutions on a mobile scale. This will be the next revolution.

GeekWire: What opportunities are you hoping to broker in your meetings with some of our large companies here in Washington state such as Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft?

Harakka: It’s a two-way street. Nokia owns Bell Labs here in the U.S., employing 10,000 people, and obviously there are a lot of American investments in Finland. We hope to introduce these Finnish companies both to Boeing and Amazon to see whether there will be some fruitful cooperation there.

But on the other hand, Microsoft has invested very much in Finland. I’m sure that our common goal of a sustainable data industry is something where we can both learn from each other. Finland could easily be one of the test cases and laboratories on this subject. We were the first in the world to produce a climate strategy for the ICT sector. The ICT sector’s carbon footprint is significant. But on the other hand, it’s totally unimaginable to achieve our climate goals without a strong identification and digitalization of societies and businesses.

GeekWire: The permanent collection here at the National Nordic Museum includes an exhibit on the so-called Nordic Way, a social compact where you generally have higher taxes and a more robust welfare state. By contrast in the U.S. we are having fractious debates around tax policy, an expanded social safety net, and big tech regulation. What is the government-tech sector relationship like in Finland?

Harakka: It’s a virtuous cycle. I keep in touch with our key companies almost on a daily basis to make sure that we know what to expect from each other. Our ministry takes pride in trying to provide enabling regulation that is as smart as possible and in turn, we expect the companies to make innovative investments that in the end benefit consumers and the public at large.

5G and mobile data is an example. Smart regulation begat competition in the market, begat the very first flat fee monthly rates for mobile data, begat demand for smartphones, begat services on the smartphone, began better connections, and so on. In this particular sector, we do have very fruitful cooperation.

I’m also spurring the government to be more agile and responsive. We are trying to organize the government so that we can address regulatory issues in real time, both national and international at the European Union level. We’ve made a lot of impact in cybersecurity regulation in Europe so that we can better accommodate transatlantic cooperation, which in these days is absolutely vital. The U.S. and Europe must cooperate even more tightly than they do today to provide a human-centered face to the digital and data economy.

GeekWire: When there are record profits in the Finnish tech sector, do companies tend to invest in R&D before CEO compensation?

Harakka: Yes, that’s the culture in Finland because the national market is way too small for these world-class companies. They want to start with the Nordic countries, then Europe, and then globally. Finland is a regulatory sandbox in many ways. It is the perfect starting point and reference for bigger companies to expand, learn, and research. While Nokia is still very prominent in Finland, though it is a global company, we have wanted to make sure that they have the best testing and R&D environment that they could ever have. We have secured frequencies for their test use, just to be sure that they will remain cutting edge. That approach has been beneficial both ways, because they see the value of our public-private cooperation and they can utilize it for a worldwide presence.