Andreas Maierhofer, CEO of T-Mobile interviewing Marek Zagórski, Minister of Digital Affairs
The fact that I’m interviewing you is something new for me – usually I’m the one being interviewed. Thank you very much for the opportunity to have this sort of conversation with you. Of course the most important questions that I’m going to ask concern digitalisation, a matter that is also important for my telco industry. In my opinion, business and local authorities should go hand in hand in order to digitalise society. That’s why my first question is: What do you think about this acceleration of digitalisation and its impact on the daily lives of Poles? Do you see more opportunities or threats in future?
Generally speaking, when we consider new solutions from a historical perspective, they have had a positive impact on human functioning and development. Thanks to development and progress, we can for example live longer. Although, we still have to solve the issue of world hunger, we are doing better and better in this respect. That is why we should look at this matter from a broader perspective. And this long-term perspective shows us that various innovations, just like the printing press in the past, have helped us develop as humanity. Thus, when looking at these new technologies, we should perceive them as an opportunity.
However, every new technology brings about some new threats, we saw this in the past with new inventions like cars. Motor accidents were something new. These days, we have the internet and there are some new threats related to it, but they should not overshadow the good things ushered in by new technologies.
There are also benefits when we look at it from the standpoint of an individual: people have better access to the world, which gives them more opportunities to grow and lets them to feel a greater sense of security.
Finally, from the standpoint of states and economies, new technologies should also be treated as an opportunity that enables their growth. For the Polish economy, this is the moment to overcome the legacy of the past, where we were lagging behind for historical reasons. The same progress and growth was enabled by telecommunications, the emergence of which solved problems that were impossible to solve under communism.
Today, given the state of the Polish economy, we should make every effort to exploit this potential. We have very good human and financial capital. Currently, we enjoy both a very good economic situation and outstanding foundations to seize these technological opportunities and give a boost to the Polish economy.
I have to say that we definitely think alike in this respect: the opportunities are vast, but on the other hand, we need to bear in mind societal concerns and work together to alleviate them in an effective manner. Speaking of opportunities: a couple months ago, I had a chance to visit Estonia and I was very impressed, in particular by the fact that more than 90% of public services are digital. Do you also see Estonia as a benchmark? And what are your next steps to bring this digital experience to Polish citizens?
This is a very interesting example, because countries such as Estonia, Finland, and Denmark, can definitely be a source of inspiration for us – they show us the direction in terms of development of e-administration. But of course, it is difficult to separate administration from business in terms of e-services – it is all interconnected. Without good telecommunication systems, we would not be able to offer good e-administration.
These countries can serve as a good benchmark for all sorts of comparisons; however, on the other hand, we need to keep in mind some differences. One of the key differences in our case does not concern the varieties of services that we offer within the framework of e-administration. Instead, the key obstacle is the number of Polish citizens using e-services. That is why we have been focusing on increasing the number of people who have a so called “Trusted Profile” [Profil Zaufany] on the internet. Hopefully, we will soon have a new means of identification on-line.
In 2015, the “Trusted Profile” was used by 350,000 people, which was less than 1% of the population. These days, we have more than 4.2 million users, and that still makes up only a few percent of the country’s population. Estonia has 80-90 percent of population using these e-services, and users exert a certain pressure – it is just like with customers. If customers exert pressure on T-Mobile, we need to adjust. This is a very important thing from the standpoint of the development of e-services. When it was 350,000 citizens, mainly civil servants, there was no pressure, so we were operating in a void. And now, the greatest challenge is to develop the services, but also to deliver it to electronic customers. This is one of our key challenges today.
Another challenge, I can see, is the digitalisation of the Polish labour market. Generally, people are afraid of changes. At T-Mobile, we have started intensive communication about the opportunities that digitalisation can bring our employees, such as reskilling or supporting their work by new technologies. However, today’s labour market also creates new challenges for employees. What role should both the Ministry of Digital Affairs and technology companies take in supporting Poles in the changing labour market?
Right now we are transforming our economy and choosing which economic model we should develop and build: should we be an economy based on cheap labour, which means a market of employees with poor competences, or focus on the labour market with IT specialists and IT professionals in general?
Of course, we should first of all offer good salaries, but in order to achieve that, we need to turn the existing economic model around. What does that mean? We need to move as many people as possible to new sectors. Additionally, we need new regulations, which will make it easier for companies to invest in Poland. Second, we need a stable state. And this is our advantage right now – we have a stable economy, we have a stable political system, and we are a safe country. And the third key element are competences: those of society as a whole as well as specialist competences. The process of boosting these competences is a huge challenge. It needs to be carried out at various levels at the same time. We need to reach the schools, as we want to encourage our children from early on to get to know algorithms and software, so that they can learn how to develop computer programs.
But on the other hand, we need to have better education for students and adults. When we talk about the idea of lifelong learning, it should be more targeted towards skills required by the IT industry. This is why we have been running so many projects, for example centres of excellence for programming, as well as a programme of supporting IT talents and digital competences in schools. All of that matters. And the message to our citizens is that we should boost our competences, because this is a way to decrease the risk of losing your job. And the state’s role is to provide these possibilities to boost competences and to encourage investments in Poland. This is what we have in common. We need a strong telecommunications sector, because this creates new jobs as well.
Of course, we as a telco industry need to play our role in creating the base for an educational system. But there is also the other side of the coin. I’m the father of three sons and I see it in the younger generation, that they inhabit a world of social media, which is awash with fake news. During my visit to Finland, I saw that the Finnish authorities are fighting against fake news in order to instil greater critical thinking in their younger generation, instead of following everything written on the social media. I was born in a time when, by default, we were all very critical people. What do you plan to do in Poland in order to address these concerns and downsides of social media?
Actually, we made a decision to work with the Finnish government, to copy what they have implemented. We are copying the whole platform dedicated to digital competences and increasing awareness in the context of AI.
There are two processes running in parallel: education and cooperation with social media providers. Poland’s NASK institute produced research showing that Poles admit that they have experienced misinformation, but on the other hand, over half of the population cannot make the distinction between an opinion and a fact. So we need to build this basic ability to differentiate, so that we do not become functional illiterates. It’s about competences.
The second thing is working together with social media providers via regulation and self-regulation. This is a very complex issue. It’s about freedom of speech on the internet; it’s also about preventing the dangers of misinformation and cyber threats. With regard to children, we are launching the “Don’t lose your child on the internet” [Nie zagub dziecka w sieci] campaign. The purpose is to increase teachers’ and parents’ awareness, so that they can understand that there threats of all kinds: in the virtual and the real world.
So: competences, regulation, and self-regulation too, and when it comes to regulating social media, we will need a pan-EU approach. These regulations are absolutely necessary, here and now.
This is the right balance, when important challenges are being solved in cooperation with authorities and companies. In my opinion, it also refers to the area of investment. I represent the telco industry in Poland, and we have big investment plans for the future. Talking about digitalisation, you first need to build the base. How do you see it and how would you describe the role of the telecommunications industry, especially in terms of 5G and the roll-out of fibre in Poland?
Infrastructure is key. My opinion has not changed – we need to take care of the infrastructure together with operators. It’s about greater LTE saturation and also about building 5G – this is the base. We need to treat the telecommunication infrastructure and the whole business surrounding it as a foundation to build the rest of the business. So working with the market is key.
The way that we’ve been building the fibre network, this model where we co-finance local operators’ projects, shows that we perceive them as strong partners in the market. We’ve changed this approach in comparison to, for example, the “Regional broadband networks” [Regionalne sieci szerokopasowe] project where local authorities were left on their own and it didn’t work. So we need these partnerships.
With 5G, we need a model that will help us build it quickly and cheaply, so that the cost for the economy is as low as possible. I hope that we will continue this dialogue and that it will bring results very soon. And this will result in a well-functioning 5G network, because this is what the European Commission has been telling us to do. Additionally, it will simply accelerate the whole process, so we’ll even be ahead of the European Commission’s plan. 5G in Poland will be up and running not only in big cities, but also in the whole of Poland as fast as possible. I think it’s also in telco operators’ interest, because it will increase your business opportunities.
Minister Zagórski, thank you very much. It was my pleasure to hear about the bright future of digital Poland.