EU Shelves Telecom Super-Regulator
A proposal by the European Commission for an EU-wide regulator to coordinate telecom rules was rejected by ministers from member states
EU telecoms ministers have rejected European Commission proposals to harmonise oversight of communications networks across Europe under a commission-controlled "super-regulator."
Meeting on Thursday (27 November) in Brussels, the ministers dashed the commission's hopes of seeing the establishment of a new EU-level telecoms body that would supercede national regulators and give the EU executive the right to veto member state decisions in the area.
Under the commission's original November 2007 telecoms proposals, the new body would have replaced the current European Regulators Group (ERG).
Where the ERG gathers together national regulators to co-ordinate telecoms regulation, the commission's preferred solution would have been controlled by the EU executive, supervised domestic regulators and been able to overrule national decisions.
Telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding called the agreement amongst telecoms ministers today an improvement on earlier suggested compromises, although she said she was "disappointed" with the outcome.
"I continue to believe that Europe's telecoms sector requires better rules than those now on the table here."
Expressing her frustration, she made reference to a US intelligence report published on Friday (21 November) that predicted the EU would become a "hobbled giant" by 2025 – powerful economically but powerless politically – if it did not overcome its internal bickering.
She warned that if telecoms regulation was not harmonised under the commission's surveillance, the dire predictions contained in the report would come true.
"Last week, an American intelligence report painted a picture of the world in 2025. The EU was predicted to have a diminished status as a 'hobbled giant'," she said.
"It is decisions that we take now that will determine whether this is indeed our fate, whether our giant market of 500 million consumers and many innovative companies remains hobbled by 27 varieties of regulation, by fragmentation, and by the absence of a level playing field for our industry."
Ms Reding called on France, currently chairing the EU presidency, to call a meeting of ministers, the commission and the European Parliament to attempt to achieve a final agreement before Spring.
The parliament has an equal say with national ministers in the realm of telecommunications. The agreement between national ministers made on Thursday provides the basis for the negotiations on a final deal on the subject between them and the European Parliament.
The parliament's position – established in September- is to give the ERG a new name, but to keep its current loose co-ordination role, with the sole move towards the commission line being that the new body could take decisions by qualified majority, rather than unanimously.
The 11 cent cap
Ministers on Thursday also rejected the commission's wish to see EU-level co-ordination of the allocation of radio frequencies – or "spectrum" – that will be no longer be in use after television has completed the shift from analogue broadcast to digital.
But they did back commission plans for limiting the price of sending text messages or email via a mobile when abroad but still within the EU.
The EU has already imposed price limits on mobile phone calls from abroad – also known as "roaming" – as Ms Reding felt that it was unfair that consumers should pay substantially more when calling from another EU state, if the union is supposed to have a single market.
This price limit will now be extended to text messaging and data traffic.
Mobile operators will now be required to introduce a "Euro-SMS tariff" by July 2009 that should not exceed 11 euro centes, excluding value-added tax. Wholesale charges for sending data over mobile networks – such as surfing the web or sending emails – would be limited to €1 per Mbit. The commission did not propose to limit retail prices in order to give what it feels is still a young market the chance to regulate itself.
Three strikes rule struck out
The commission and national capitals also came together on criticising French proposals to force internet service providers to cut off subscribers that repeatedly download copyrighted material without permission.
The French government is considering the so-called graduated response law that would see users lose their internet connection after three strikes. First an email would be sent to the offender, then a letter in the post and finally the subscriber would be cut off from the internet for a year.
Internet users have reacted with horror at the plan, and the commission and parliament are not fans, arguing that access to the internet is increasingly the main avenue of accessing information, connecting to health service providers and other essentials. Cutting off an internet connection is almost akin to cutting off someone's electricity, many believe.
In September, the European Parliament approved by a large majority an amendment to the telecoms legislation package outlawing internet cut-off. The commission afterward backed the parliament's amendment, with the telecoms ministers now also on board.