Much of what the Commission proposes goes in the right direction although some actions, such as plans to harmonize copyright, could stir controversy. Even US tech giants might be less worried than expected.
On May 6th, more quickly than expected, the European Commission released its much anticipated “Digital Single Market Strategy” (DSM).
The Juncker Commission has made the DSM the top priority of its five-year term, claiming €340 billion in potential economic gains, an exciting figure that should be supported by quantitative research analysis.
Much of what the Commission proposes in the 20-page document seems to go in the right direction, setting out three main areas to be addressed:
– Better access to digital goods and services. The Commission claims that delivery costs for physical goods impede e-commerce, pointing the finger to parcel delivery companies; that many sellers use unjustified geo-blocking to avoid serving customers outside their home market; that copyright needs to be modernized; and that VAT compliance for SMEs should be simplified.
– Creating the right conditions for digital networks and services to flourish by, encouraging investment in infrastructure; replacing national-level management of spectrum with greater coordination at EU level; looking into the behavior of online platforms, including consumer trust and the swift removal of illegal content and personal data management.
– Maximising the growth potential of our European Digital Economy by, encouraging manufacturing to become smarter; fostering standards for interoperability; making the most of cloud computing and of big data, said to be “the goose that laid the golden eggs”; fostering e-services, including those in the public sector; developing digital skills.
It is understandable that the Internet provides a channel for businesses to reach consumers more widely than traditional media, both in their own markets and abroad, and for consumers to have a wider choice and bargain-hunt more effectively.
In a truly single digital market there are opportunities to scale up that are not present in the much smaller national markets.
More controversial are the commission’s plans to harmonize copyright law, in particular its plan to ban “geo-blocking”, the practice of restricting access to online services based upon the user’s geographical location.
However, the most problematic point concerns “platforms”: the digital services, such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix and iTunes on which all sorts of other services can be built upon and which have come to dominate the internet.
Worried that the mainly American-owned platforms could abuse their market power, the Commission will launch by the end of this year an assessment of their role.
However the fact that most of the 32 internet platforms identified for assessment by the Commission are American and only one (Spotify) is European, hints more towards the fact that it is harder for new firms to scale up rapidly rather than abuse of market power.
What it is interesting is that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to consider a Digital Single Market a disadvantage for Facebook.
Instead, he supports the idea. Facebook has to deal with different laws in every country and a single set of regulation for the whole European continent would actually make things easier for Facebook.
The digital economy also depends on the availability of reliable, high-speed and affordable fixed and mobile broadband networks throughout Europe. There are no good reasons to still have national telecom laws in this field.
How will Europe successfully deploy 5G without enhanced coordination of spectrum assignments between Member States?
Let us not forget that these networks do not only have an economic value; they are increasingly important for public access to information, freedom of expression, media pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity.
The following two pieces of legislation are related to the DSM:
– The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), replacing the 1998 Directive that generated the data protection regimes of 28 Member States, with a single one, was proposed by the Commission in 2012, has undergone amendments by both the EP and the Council of Ministers and could be adopted in 2015 or 2016.
– The Telecoms Regulation, reviewing the 2002 Telecoms Regulation to cover net neutrality and roaming fees, was proposed by the Commission in 2012, was amended by the EP and is currently with the Council, which has scaled back the EP’s amendments.
The upcoming negotiations on the Telecoms Single Market will give a hint of the challenges to come in creating a Digital Single Market over the next years.
Europe’s broadband system is highly fragmented and in need of improvement. That helps explain why the European Commission is working toward a digital single market. Reduced regulation and tax rules harmonization play a key role in achieving this goal.
The EU’s struggle with broadband connectivity is largely due to inadequate investment in infrastructure from broadband providers. As the European Commission explained in its memo about the connected continent, there are hundreds of telecom operators in Europe, but none active in all member states.
Many European leaders are increasingly abandoning their regulatory approach and looking to the US broadband model.
The American market-led approach of facilities-based competition has resulted in greater investment in next-generation broadband technologies. American operators have invested almost twice as much per capita as their European counterparts in recent years.
While broadband investment can be cyclical, with periods of high spending for network upgrades followed by periods of lower spending and maintenance, the US has been the world pacesetter, investing some $1.2 trillion since 1996. Since then, an average of at least $60 billion annually has been invested to build and upgrade wired and wireless networks, to lay millions of miles of fiber-optic cable (more than in the whole EU combined), and to erect cell towers.
The EU is composed of some 28 nations, 24 official languages, and 11 currencies.
America’s de facto single market allows companies of all sizes to achieve scale, and this holds true for both large broadband providers that deploy infrastructure and for entrepreneurs and emerging companies that want access to a large domestic market.
Indeed, Europe is the top location for America’s digital exports, and some concern exists that the lack of broadband investment in the EU could inhibit the growth for some digital exports to Europe in the future. So both previously mentioned points are really the clue.
That helps explain why the European Commission is working toward a digital single market across the EU, with initiatives aiming to bring American-style investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship to the European broadband market and Internet-based industries.
Which are those recipes that could bring us potential success?
Generally speaking, the European Union should simplify and reduce regulation of broadband providers, remove barriers to consolidation, and embrace a market-led with technology-neutral approach.
1) Market-led broadband development. The government should not decide which technology citizens should have and shouldn’t give subsidies for broadband deployment where providers are investing. Given the right regulatory circumstances, the marketplace is willing and able to make efficient decisions about broadband.
A smart vision for broadband realizes that no one network can do it all and embraces a variety of network solutions and innovations that depend on the market. [Tweet “The broadband market, if allowed to operate freely, can meet the demands of today and the future”]
2) Creating a single market. The creation of a digital single market would permit the consolidation of broadband providers across borders, reduce costs through economies of scale, and create a better business case for operators to invest in broadband infrastructure.
It would also permit a more effective and continent-wide spectrum policy, the removal of inefficient national divisions, and the introduction of more comprehensive secondary markets to allow more efficient usage of the limited resource.
Harmonizing tax regimes across the continent would also reduce the burden on consumers and businesses.
3) Simplifying and reducing regulation. Regulatory reform is another necessary step in resolving Europe’s broadband challenge.
Removing the open-access mandate would encourage investment by market incumbents in next-generation infrastructure without fear of being undercut by non-investing new entrants.
Reducing the current regulation may encourage more independent investment in upgrading existing infrastructure.
And the most important is to remove national restrictions on consolidation across countries. This would allow operators to find the cost savings across borders and build a business case for infrastructure deployment.
Recently, the European Commission’s vice president for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, said he is “worried” about the direction that negotiations over the Telecoms Single Market package have taken in the European Council, where member states appear divided on the issue.
We need to continue trying to convince them and focus on the overall keys to success that I have outlined above.
More help is required on this.