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
On paper (almost) everyone in Europe is lining up to praise the benefits of building a digital single market, including national governments. However, of late, member states have shown little appetite for “europeanising” their digital policies.
“One response to the digital revolution must be the Europeanisation of digital policy,” EU digital commissioner Gunther Oettinger proclaimed on Monday 16 March at the CeBIT fair in Hannover. His statement comes not as a surprise. Ever since its early days the European Commission has expressed the intention of going after national silos in the digital market.
We have also known for some time that such ambitions are being packed into a grand strategy due to be unveiled in May which will comprise a set of reforms in as many areas as copyright, telecommunications, audio-visual services, e-commerce, and so forth.
On paper (almost) everyone in Europe is lining up to applaud the move, including national governments. Only two weeks ago, a Council meeting of EU Competitiveness Ministers gave its blessing calling various actions aimed at removing unnecessary barriers in order to enable a smooth and quick transition to the digital age.
Building a European digital market is also one of the 10 key actions outlined in the German government’s digital plan for 2014-2017 that was presented by Angela Markel in person at the opening of CeBIT.
Yet behind these rosy appearances the reality may be way more challenging for Mr. Oettinger and his fellow commissioners. In fact, of late, member states have shown little appetite for “europeanising” their digital policies. The perfect illustration of this ill-concealed reluctance is the recent agreement reached by the Council on the so-called “Connected Continent” package.
Originally, the proposed regulation provided for less red tape for operators (for instance by creating a single authorisation to provide services across the EU), more coordination of spectrum use, a higher level of standardization for fixed access products as well as for consumer rules.
None of these proposals has survived the compromise text endorsed by member states, who removed from the package everything but its provisions on net neutrality and roaming charges.
At the end of the day, the irony is that the amended text of a proposal named “Telecom Single Market” would do nothing to sort out Europe’s fragmented telecoms market and regulatory imbalances.
And this is not an isolated case. From the data protection reform to the EU cyber security directive (most) national governments have so far appeared more prone to water down than to embrace the Commission’s drive for more common rules (and, conversely, less national powers) in many key areas of the digital sphere.
This is a worrying signal taking into consideration that the balance of EU power is tilting back towards governments at the expense of Brussels’ supranational institutions (European Commission and the European Parliament).
Things may perhaps change. No doubt the European Commission will try its best to build consensus using all its diplomatic leverage to push through digital reforms.
But given the precedents, as the forthcoming plan on the digital single market will entail several legislations that will touch upon sensitive national interests, not to mention the pressure coming from corporate lobbies, the fundamental question that should be asked is: Are our governments enough serious about building a truly digital single market? Or will they persist in striking “watered-down” and unambitious compromises that would clearly harm Europe’s chances to link its future prosperity to the digital economy?
photo credits: Mark Fosh
The European Commission has taken an important first step in outlining possible elements of an EU action plan on Big Data. It is now essential to get the policy framework right. The faster the better.
A second wave of digital transformation is coming.
The first one revolutionized the way we order information and spans technological advances from the advent of the mainframe computer to the arrival of Internet search.
[Tweet “This second wave will reinvent how we make things and solve problems.”]
Broadly it can be summed up in two words: Big Data. The expression ‘Big Data’ is used to describe the ability to collect very large quantities of data from a growing number of devices connected through the Internet.
Thanks to vast storage capacity and easy access to supercomputing power – both often provided in the cloud – and rapid progress in analytical capabilities, massive datasets can be stored, combined and analysed. In the next five years Big Data will help make breakthroughs in medical research in the fight against terminal illnesses. Per capita energy consumption will decline sharply thanks to smart metering another application of Big Data.
Traffic jams will be rarer, managing extreme weather conditions will become more science, less guesswork. Makers of consumer goods of all kinds will be able to reduce waste by tailoring production to actual demand. This new ‘data economy’ will be fertile ground that will allow many new European SMEs to flourish.
Broad adoption of such Big Data applications can only happen if the data is allowed to flow freely, and if it can be gathered, shared and analysed by trusted sources. Size definitely does matter. The bigger the dataset, the more insights we can glean from it, so it’s important that the data can flow as widely as possible.
[Tweet “Some elements of Big Data might involve personal data.”]
People need to be confident these are protected by laws and agreements (such as safe harbour). All actors in the data economy must work hard to ensure that data is as secure as possible against theft and fraud.
The European Commission has taken an important first step in outlining possible elements of an EU action plan for advancing towards the data-driven economy and addressing Europe’s future societal challenges.
To complement this initiative DIGITALEUROPE has drafted a paper outlining what we see as the policy focus in relation to Big Data.
We have identified eight priorities:
– Adopt a harmonised, risk-based and modern EU framework for personal data protection that creates trust while at the same time enabling societally beneficial innovations in the data economy
– Encourage the protection of Big Data applications from cyber attacks, focusing regulatory efforts on truly critical infrastructures
– Support the development of global, voluntary, market-driven and technology-neutral standards to ensure interoperability of datasets
– Clarify the application of EU copyright rules so to facilitate text and data mining
– Boost the deployment of Open Data by transposing the Public Sector Information Directive into national law by June 2015 at the latest (EU Member States)
– Create trust in cross-border data flows by supporting the implementation of the Trusted Cloud Europe recommendations
– Continue addressing the data skills gap by supporting initiatives like the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs
– Continue encouraging private investment in broadband infrastructure and HPC technologies with public funding DIGITALEUROPE is ready to engage constructively with the European Commission, Parliament and Council to help them formulate a European action plan for the data economy
It is essential to get this policy framework right, but it is also important to move fast. While Europe is preparing the ground for widespread adoption of the new digital age, the rest of the world is not standing still.
photo credit: data.path Ryoji.Ikeda
EU governments look pretty keen to scrap plans for more coordination in spectrum licensing across the continent. However, the move may jeopardize future efforts to improve Europe’s mobile networks, with negative impacts on consumers and businesses alike.
It is unclear whether EU member states are going to broker a deal on the Telecoms Single Market package anytime soon. Differences abound on the details of Net Neutrality provisions and plans to end roaming fees featured in the proposed bill.
However, what’s more certain at this stage is that most governments are keen to get away with the package proposals pushing for more coordination in spectrum licensing for wireless broadband.
If confirmed, the move would strike a fatal blow to the very spirit of the legislation.
For in a world increasingly dominated by mobile communications there will be no digital single market without a higher degree of harmonization in spectrum policies.
The expected gains will be paramount to speed up the roll out of 4G networks, bringing huge benefits to consumers and businesses alike. The same goes for the introduction of more flexibility and market-led mechanisms in spectrum usage provided for by the legislative package.
Speaking at a recent GSMA event, the EU new digital single market chief Andrus Ansip urged governments to make up their minds rightfully pointing out that more cooperation on spectrum assignment “is not a technical issue” but would translate into cheaper and higher quality connectivity, as well as new services.
MEPs should also step up their pressure by threatening to block any incoming inter-institutional negotiations on the TSM proposal if member states water down or drop its provisions on spectrum usage. It would be a logical step since the European Parliament in April passed an amended draft of the bill that reinforces its original plans on spectrum harmonization.
The truth here is that auctions for frequencies have long provided an easy source of revenue for governments. This explains their reluctance, also welcome by national regulators, to relinquish powers to a more centralized mechanism of the sort contemplated by TSM package. A single market for wireless communications would be however a far more lucrative bargain for everyone in the long run.
Although the European Commission has pledged to work out new legislation on ‘radiospectrum management’, it would be foolish to give up on the rules put forward by former EU digital chief Neelie Kroes under the scope of the TSM package. In fact any future bill should build up upon them, impulsing greater harmonization and – why not? – even daring to break the great taboo of pan-European auctions.
At this stage a fresh legislative initiative would take a while to be drafted and presented, not to mention adopted. Do not expect anything like that before 2016. Meanwhile, the gap between Europe and other regions (such as the US) in LTE deployments, network speeds, total mobile usage or the rollout of advanced services may get bigger to the detriment of the continent’s economy.
To be sure, a lot is at stake here. Up to the new Commission and the European Parliament to convey this message to their national counterparts.