There is a sneaky sensation when one looks at the “Connected Continent” package, which supposedly should lead Europe’s efforts toward a vibrant, competitive digital single market. Every time the text is revised, it becomes worse.
The recently leaked document, that was the basis for a first exploratory trilogue held on March 23 in Brussels, is no exception: it marks a big step backwards. Here’s why.
First, the confusion on net neutrality seems to be increasing. The latest text reintroduces the possibility for providers to enter into agreements aimed at creating services with minimum quality levels.
While this might represent an improvement compared to the text voted by the Parliament in April 2014, which took a much stricter position on net neutrality by prohibiting specialized services, the new text fails to clarify the conditions under which such agreements would be viable.
The mere indication that the provision of services with guaranteed quality (e.g. for e-Health, or for the connected car, which require sufficient latency to be effectively delivered) should not materially impair the quality of internet access for other end users does not bring any legal certainty.
Will the assessment of the “material impairment” be performed by national regulators? Ex ante or ex post? Based on what parameters?
This rule, if maintained in its current state, might prove to be very difficult, if not impossible, to implement in practice. Not surprising, since a similar rule is already in place as Article 22 of the Universal Service Directive since 2009, and has remained practically dead letter.
Second, the most recent text postpones the achievement of zero roaming prices to 2018 by implementing a transitory regime called “roam like at home plus” (RLAH+) proposed by the Latvian Presidency.
However, a complex rule is being devised, which would allow the “plus” to be applicable only after a basic roaming allowance is exceeded. The Presidency proposed that the basic roaming allowance could be available for a minimum of 7 days, and that it could include a minimum daily consumption of 5 minutes of voice calls made and received, 5 SMS sent and 5 megabytes of data roaming services used.
Third, and most importantly, there is no trace of the original proposal to coordinate spectrum allocation in certain key bands.
While the original proposal was already a watered-down version of what many claim should be the real objective of the EU institutions – a pan-European spectrum policy – in the new text spectrum becomes a ghost. A deplorable absence, which might bear severe consequences for the future of the Union’s economy.
Quite surprisingly, the institution that has been most vocal on the need to include spectrum in the package is the European Parliament. But the Latvian presidency seems to have no mandate to negotiate spectrum, a hot potato that was cut out of the negotiation table for lack of consensus among member states.
These are quite bad news for European citizens and businesses. In addition to a rather disappointing text, the evolution of the debate lends itself to possibly more discouraging interpretations.
Is the Commission now willing to bargain by offering to anticipate zero roaming in exchange for more leeway on specialized services? Or is the new, “political” European Commission in such a subordinate position to the Council, that anything that is not immediately and almost unanimously agreed by the Member States is taken out of the dossier?
Is this the real meaning of Juncker’s top ten priorities, and the idea to be “big on big things, small on small things”?
To be sure, the coming weeks will be an important testbed for these conjectures.
The next negotiation session on the Connected Continent proposal is scheduled for 21 April: there is still time to table more ambitious and meaningful proposals.