Posted on 16/Feb/2015
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Is there a single reason why we need national telecoms law in the digital age in the European Union? I am struggling to think of one. I’m not saying a universal telecoms utopia is about to descend on us. I am simply putting it out there, that there’s no use for national law in this area anymore.

I can already here the “buts” screaming at me through the interweb. Remember that the starting assumption of most individuals and like-minded groups is that they are unique, or have unique needs. This applies across all forms of thinking and human activity. Thinking you or your country is unique is about the least unique thing you can do.

From a consumer perspective, we need to ask why the most borderless service and content category – the online world – is the one with the most national regulation.

Why does a consumer in Austria need more rights to change phone contracts than a citizen in Slovenia? Why does a Belgian need 141 times more protection from 4G radiation than a citizen in France? .

In a connected and data-powered world we can see relatively quickly and easily what works and what doesn’t. Policy is no exception, and it’s quite clear that 28 different approaches to telecoms don’t work.

Achieving uniformity would come at too high a political cost; but the cost of pretending there is a policy benefit to every European country doing their own thing is higher.

Jealously guarding the pet ideas and projects of whichever mid-level policy makers have cornered the geeky digital fields for themselves in a given country is not the way to make good policy.

Think about the example of the so-called “Universal Service Obligation” which imposes on incumbent telecoms companies certain levels of service guarantee. In the countries that want it. To the extent they feel like it. Or felt like it when they last discussed it. A decade ago. Seriously?

Here’s my question to people who think it should exist: what’s universal about it, if every country gets to decide whether to have it and what the parameters are?

Aside from the fact that it’s hard for a government to keep up to date with what people want and need in terms of internet access, it’s all just so pointless when a Universal Service Obligation is neither universal nor obligatory.

From a rural broadband roll-out perspective, let’s look beyond the failed effort to use European Investment Bank to fill rural gaps, as the Connecting Europe Facility proposed.

…simply by spreading the best policy models.

What is there to gain from following the Italian model, where virtually no-one has fast broadband outside of cities? Nothing.

What is there to gain from the Swedish model, where virtually everyone does?A great deal.

Letting countries choose to fail out of deference to traditions of national policy failure is ridiculous. This has nothing to do with threatening a country’s identity or way of life (unless you count poverty and isolation as a way of life) and everything to do with common sense.

From a business perspective let’s look at mobile roaming charges. In popular debate we hear about holiday-makers getting shock bills or being forced to turn off their devices.

In reality the people and economic activity affected most by roaming charges are businesses and business travellers. Job creation, exports, and start-ups are not helped by roaming charges.

These are arbitrary charges introduced in the 1990s (and not from the get-go: the original system was just a 33% mark-up on your domestic bill when you travelled), based on non-existent extra costs.

It costs supermarket chains more deliver goods to stores without truck parking spaces than it does for telecoms operators to connect you while abroad. And you don’t see that supermarkets charging a 2000% mark-up in response to their traffic problem. Why should telcos?

Stupid systems like this hurt the people who do most to grow our economy, and they hurt blameless victims like people who live in border zones. And that’s before considering the anger and confusion imposed on ordinary retail customers.

There is no justification for them on market or political terms. They are simply logically inconsistent to the over-riding principle of the single market. No national law can possibly trump that set of arguments. And yet we hear endlessly about how hard abolishing roaming fees will be for telcos in holiday destinations like Portugal and France.

Yes, how terrible for those telcos having to cope with people paying them to send their holiday photos home in August. Next time you see a telco CEO: remember he is like a starving child – only he suffers more – because the fat from his roaming cash cow is at risk.

Then there’s the mother of all stakeholder issues: net neutrality. We cannot seem to agree on a working definition of the concept to conduct a public debate. Given that, is 28 parallel national debates about the same universal network that we all depend on really the way to achieve public good? The only ways forward are European and global debates.

Then there’s the mother of all geek issues: spectrum. If you look at chart of how spectrum is allocated in Europe it looks like a university student threw up on a sheet of paper after a night out drinking cheap spirits and pizza. It’s so mangled and messed up that it’s clear no national set of decision-makers could possibly untwist it all.

It’s rare to even get enough brains in a room to make sense of it, let alone fix it. The relevance to the issue of national vs EU law is that there’s a difference between saying every country has the right to reserve certain amounts of spectrum for military use (fair enough) and other distortions.

There is no reason to leave TV stations with existing spectrum just because they existed before mobile companies did.

There is no sense in greedy national treasuries conducting blood-sucking auctions – because all they do is delay new service roll-out and the extra tax receipts that come with it.

There is no reason for spectrum to be allocated to pagers (remember them on the doctor’s waist in the 1980s) and taxi radio systems (what’s an app, guys?).

Again, let countries reserve spectrum for the military, and then let a common European system apply to the rest. If we don’t, you can look forward to your mobile phone dropping out even more often sometime in the mid-future.

Even when it is not legally or political possibly to apply European or global solutions, it is still fundamentally necessary to have European debates. Because if there is one thing we have learnt from the history of telecoms – from undersea cables to internet to the GSM standard to the rise of Vodafone to roaming price caps – it is that cross-border action has the best impacts.



photo credits: János Balázs

  • tomthumb015

    Very well written post about the problems of the European digital maze and labyrinth of stupid and outdated national regulations and laws for everything online. Problem is people are tired of waiting for change. Decades of debates about copyright change, roaming charges, the endless fantasy of a truly European digital market? Still waiting??

    National telecoms do not want to change, why should they, they are more than happy to keep milking their captive cash cow customers. Netflix is blocked across most of southern Europe, no wonder people use VPN’s and downloading. Europe is too slow to adapt and evolve digitally and people are not going to sit around waiting any longer. Shopping online – Oh! sorry, but we cannot deliver to your country due to bla, bla, bla restrictions. Wake up EU?