EU leadership on 5G will depend on the ability of policy makers to think out-of-the-box, and beyond old debates. Instead, they should keep focusing on universal, technology neutral and future proof principles.
On 26th January, the industry and research committee (ITRE) of the European Parliament organised the first hearing on the future of electronic communications following the legislative proposals tabled by the European Commission in September last year.
Listening to the discussion it emerged clearly that the debate is increasingly heating up and that, at least when it comes to the future of pro-competitive access measures, two clear opposite camps are shaping up: on one side, consumers, alternative telecom operators and regulators (BEREC) that ask to maintain the pro-competitive framework that guaranteed high broadband performances and low prices in most EU countries for the last 15 years; and, on the other side, dominant telcos (ETNO and GSMA) and some financial institutions such as HSBC loudly advocating for a deregulatory agenda that would grant higher profits to few selected players and for their investors.
Connected to this policy fight there is a much more strategic ongoing battle, the one on the future of 5G and on the way to ensure EU leadership in the development of this emerging technology. How 5G will finally develop and what will actually deliver is not consensual yet.
A recent study recently published by the European Parliament precisely on this topic raises several concerns and affirms that established telcos are trying to steer current and future 5G policies towards a precise scenario, i.e. 5G as the new generation of mobile communications based on exclusive spectrum licenses (just like 3G and 4G). In this model/scenario only few players share the consumer market for faster and more reliable mobile communications.
But 5G could mean much more than this. The goal that Europe could set for itself is that 5G will finally enable full convergence between fixed and mobile data communication services. On top of this seamless connectivity any provider should be able to create and offer new services, that is the emergence of totally new and innovative platform.
In order to do this, it is essential that policy makers think out-of-the-box in an open manner and that, with this view, they refrain from defining rules today that could set development of 5G on an old path. Policy makers should keep focused on universal, technology neutral and future proof principles.
In this respect competition has played in the past and will play in the future as enabler of innovation and of investments. A pro-competitive framework in terms of access to spectrum resources combined with well-studied regime for spectrum sharing where possible will be crucial to give to Europe its much desired leadership in 5G.
Picture credit: Andrew J. Russell
Joe Smithies, spokesperson for the UK telecoms regulator, defends the recent reform of Openreach, illustrates UK priorities for the review of the EU telecoms framework, suggests caution on bringing in more harmonisation in radio-spectrum policies.
The Digital Post: BT competitors lamented that in its long awaited Strategic Review of Digital Communications, Ofcom did not go far enough in regulating Openreach. How do you respond to this criticism?
Joe Smithies: We made a clear decision to reform Openreach’s governance and strengthen its independence from BT. We want Openreach to a more independent say on its budgets, investment and strategy. We also want Openreach to consult with all its customers, not just BT, about how it develops and invests in its network.
These decisions are important not only for BT, but for the wider industry. Now we are working on the best way to bring that about, and we will set out detailed plans later this year.
The Digital Post: How does the review ensure that Openreach improves its record in repairs and invests more in infrastructures, i.e. two of the main criticisms it has been collecting over the years?
JS: Currently BT Openreach is obliged to deliver a range of minimum standards. The majority of people encountering a fault must see it repaired within two working days, and the vast majority of those requiring a new line must receive an appointment within 12 working days.
We plan to set out detailed proposals about more demanding minimum standards for Openreach in the autumn.
On investment, we want Openreach to consult with all its customers, not just BT, about how it invests in the network. But more widely, we will encourage investment from other operators by requiring BT to open up its physical network, allowing rivals to lay their own fibre connections. That can create more rivals networks to Openreach, and in turn incentivise BT to invest.
The Digital Post: What should be the main priorities to be addressed under the upcoming review of the EU Telecom Framework?
JS: Concerns have been raised that the framework may not be sufficiently flexible to allow for the regulation of markets where there is a limited or shrinking number of players – in other words, an emerging ‘oligopoly’.
The framework allows regulators to take action to address damaging market features that could harm consumers, before that harm materialises. So it offers greater flexibility than, for example, remedies imposed during a merger.
But we feel the framework sets too high a bar for regulating cases where no one company has market power, but the market is still highly concentrated. To address any concerns, the framework requires regulators to show that the market structure is likely to result in a degree of coordination between operators. This may require demonstrating ‘tacit collusion’, which by definition is hard to prove.
BEREC, the European body of telecoms regulators, raised this issue in detail last year. We’re pleased that the European Commission is also considering the issue as part of the framework review. We hope to see changes that mean regulators have the full range of tools to respond to a changing market.
Any new powers would need to be applied proportionately, and with care. Checks and balances should be built into the system to ensure that happens. But with a change in the framework we could do more to encourage new operators into the market, and keep prices low.
The Digital Post: The framework review will also put forward proposals to promote better coordination in spectrum at EU level. What is your view?
JS: Spectrum is a finite resource, so coordination is important for using it effectively. Generally speaking, any form of harmonisation should be justifiable, proportionate and deliver tangible benefits. It should equally respect national sovereignty.
The UK works productively with the EU on spectrum matters, and we believe that the current system works well.
Picture credits: Kainet
European Commission’s plans to overhaul the telecoms rules across the bloc are most likely to encounter the hostility of a powerful, yet unsuspicious ‘lobby’: national regulators.
An opinion issued in mid-December by Berec, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, appears to anticipate a confrontation with Brussels.
The Commission has made a top priority to “break down national silos” in the sector’s regulation with the aim of building a genuine single market for telecoms.
Berec’s opinion is keen to stress that any such achievement “will always be the product of 28 competitive and well-regulated national markets”. While the executive president Jean-Claude Juncker recently proclaimed that he wants “to see pan-continental telecoms networks”, regulators respond that “physical networks are and will remain national.”
No need to be a telecom expert to guess that the two institutions may have diverging views. This is nothing new. Disagreements of this sort adumbrate a struggle of power that has been playing out for some time.
Telecom regulators stood firmly against several attempts by former digital commissioner Neelie Kroes to exert more control over their domestic decisions.
Now they fear that the upcoming reform might curtail their sway in national markets while increasing the Commission’s competences in what is meant to be a fresh shift of power.
Little wonder that Berec’s opinion appears to air scepticism at the idea championed by Brussels that the current rules governing the sector need a robust modernization as well as more harmonization.
By contrast, the organization is vocal in praising the existing legislation – although admitting improvements are required – precisely because it leaves regulators enough room for manoeuvre, namely the “ability to address the particularities of their national markets”.
Greater EU harmonisation should happen only where it makes sense, while preserving national differences, Berec argues. Thankfully, the Commission believes that a fair chunk of those differences are leading to overregulation or regulatory uncertainty that might hinder investment at a time Europe needs to accelerate the rollout of digital networks so as to compete with the rest of the world.
The mobile sector is a textbook case. Ensuring greater consistency in radio spectrum policies at EU level – a measure the Commission has announced to be part of the reform – will generate mobile network cost savings, as well as additional benefits associated with improved coverage, capacity and network performance, observers say unanimously.
And yet Berec does not appear to share this idea. To the contrary: It says that “top-down harmonization” might result “in inefficient use of” radio spectrum, “hampering rather than supporting innovation”.
The Commission is expected to unveil its proposal for the review of the EU’s regulatory framework for electronic communications as early as this spring.
These rules addressing the regulation of service provision, access, interconnection, users’ contractual rights and users’ privacy were last revised in 2007-2009. The reform constitutes one of the 16 strategic actions of the Digital Single Market strategy unveiled with great fanfare in May last year.
Berec’s opinions are not binding but must be taken in “utmost account” by the European Commission, according to the EU law, meaning they cannot be simply neglected, not least because telecoms regulators are often tasked with implementing the bloc’s rules.
It is worth noting that in the past years some regulators chose to ignore Brussels’ decisions or even the implementation of pieces of European legislation.
At the same time Berec voiced strong criticism at a bunch of key Commission’s proposals. For instance, it objected to a wide spectrum of measures put forward under the “Connected Continent” package, which was also designed to accelerate the building of a single telecom market.
That is why the European Commission should strengthen the dialogue with regulators before putting out the new legislation so as to minimize their influent opposition (in the past they lamented that they have been not consulted).
The fact is that further integration in the sector’s regulation is key for the future prosperity of the bloc and is a stepping stone towards a digital single market. Berec ought to come to terms with this basic truth even this means a loss of powers for the national regulators.
Photo credit: Jesse Loughborough
Despite all the great promises, roaming fees are here to stay for some more time. They are not disappearing until 2018 or even later according to an amended proposal likely to get the backing of European governments as early as the end of February.
The compromise text put forward by the Latvian Presidency of the EU offers some sweeteners by providing for domestic rates to apply (as of June 2016) only to a very limited amount of traffic generated from abroad. That means travellers will resume paying surcharges after a few calls and some fiddling with their favourite app.
Extra fees will even keep applying to incoming calls.
One doesn’t have to be familiar with the technicalities of telecoms regulation to realize that we are nowhere near the “complete end of roaming charges” boasted by the proponent of the legislation and former EU commissioner for Digital agenda Neelie Kroes.
True, the European Parliament last April voted to ban roaming charges from 15 December 2015. Under the EU decision-making system MEPs will have to agree on a common text with Member states, thus raising the chances of a more consumer-friendly compromise.
However, given the differences between the two institutions, it is not clear to what extent a deal could restore Mrs Kroes’ pledges, or even if it could be struck at all.
Political wrangling apart, ending roaming charges gives also rise to a number of complex technical and legal issues. No wonder if national regulators, namely the very bodies in charge of putting the new rules into practice, have cautioned that the job “is not feasible”.
To be sure, they can’t be accused of siding with mobile operators (which have been lobbying hard against the proposal). Instead, they have simply highlighted an inconvenient truth most politicians in Brussels pretend to ignore: that the legislation is so ill conceived that it would do more harm than good.
In fact, it may lead to an increase in domestic prices, squeeze smaller (and often more competitive) operators and in the long term impair network investments. Competition will suffer as a result.
So the paradox here is that a legislation designed to benefit consumers will wound up harming them. This is not a surprise.
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To her credit, Mrs Kroes tried her best to address this fragmentation only to see the bulk of her “Connected Continent” package being torn apart by Member states and (to a lesser extent) MEPs.
Alas, many more national barriers should be brought down before an end to roaming charges becomes fully sustainable for the industry and truly beneficial to European citizens.
It is indeed wrong to assume, as many do, that a roaming-free continent would accelerate the transition to a telecoms single market. It is precisely the other way round.