Broadband coverage and internet speed
The Commission is going to present its target for every household in the EU to reach internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second by 2025, according to a leaked communication published on EURACTIV.com earlier this summer.
Boosting high-capacity telecoms networks is critical to some of the Commission's signature digital policy priorities, like introducing faster 5G mobile networks and stepping up work with auto manufacturers on connected cars.
The Commission's two digital policy chiefs, Günther Oettinger and Andrus Ansip, have talked up the so-called internet of things, or the trend of connecting devices and appliances like refrigerators to the internet. Telecoms companies have warned that won't be possible without a move to 5G and investment in faster networks.
One Commission document said some of the funds for new networks can be taken out of the executive's connecting Europe facility scheme, which will be beefed up to meet the new 2025 internet speed goal.
But the EU executive acknowledges that an estimated €155 billion in investment cash is still needed to fill in gaps where there is poor or no internet network infrastructure.
97% of all homes in the EU already have broadband internet access. The Commission wants to bring that figure up to 100% by making access to affordable broadband a guaranteed right for everyone in the EU.
Internal documents seen by EURACTIV this summer revealed the Commission's plans to expand the universal service directive, an EU law dating back to 2002 that guarantees access to services like public payphones and the free emergency telephone number 112.
The EU executive is expected to propose changing the universal service directive to include broadband coverage, and wants guaranteed access to public payphones to be removed from the law.
National governments will be put under pressure by the change, since the Commission wants them to front the bill for making affordable broadband access available everywhere. Although only 3% of Europe has no access right now, much of the uncovered areas are rural places where companies don't have financial incentives to build completely new networks for a small number of consumers.
Telecoms operators will be relieved that the Commission proposal won't require them to pay for those networks.
One of the most controversial parts of the legal overhaul is whether internet services like WhatsApp and Skype will be pulled under telecoms law for the first time.
ETNO, a trade association representing Europe's largest telecoms companies―including former state monopolies―have pushed for the Commission to extend telecoms laws to these services as well. They argue that internet companies compete by offering calls and SMS texting functions but don't have to comply with the same level of regulations.
The Commission seems to have heard those arguments and set its sights on some of those internet services. According to one internal memo seen by EURACTIV in August, Skype's service to dial out to phone numbers will be targeted by the new regulations but its offer for calls between Skype users won't be.
Internet companies are up in arms about the move to make them comply with telecoms laws, which could mean a dramatic change in how they are policed by national telecoms regulators in each EU country.
Separately from the proposals to revamp telecoms law coming out in September, the Commission is getting ready to propose changes to the ePrivacy directive around the end of this year. The seven-year-old privacy law currently applies only to telecoms operators but will likely be extended to also tighten privacy rules for internet texting and call services like WhatsApp and Skype.
The European Commission announced in its digital single market plans last year that it wants to harness new powers over radio spectrum policy and force EU countries to follow the same rules for their auctions of spectrum to telecoms companies.
But the executive could be setting itself up for a fight: many national governments are unwilling to give up their grasp on spectrum because they see it as a national issue—spectrum auctions can be very lucrative, with sales yielding several billion euros in some countries.
A major spectrum overhaul has escaped previous Commission attempts to reform telecoms policy. The so-called connected continent package of legislation that was proposed by former EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes in 2013 was finally passed in 2015.
The final version of connected continent included stand-out policies like net neutrality rules and a ban on mobile roaming charges—but Kroes' original plans for EU-wide spectrum policy were scrapped. National governments weren't up for transferring their powers over auction conditions to Brussels.
The Commission is now making another attempt following a first partial agreement reached in May with the EU member states.
The executive is well aware that spectrum is still a sensitive issue in many European capitals—Commission officials working on the new revamp of telecoms law even suggested packaging the controversial plans for more EU spectrum policy “around the 5G narrative” since that “resonates politically well,” according to a leaked internal Commission memo that EURACTIV published in July.
A separate document seen by EURACTIV in August indicated that the Commission wants to introduce binding conditions that all national governments will have to comply with for their spectrum auctions. Huge differences between auction prices for spectrum around the EU are fragmenting the European mobile market, according to the Commission’s analysis.
Telecoms companies back the Commission's plans to boost its authority on spectrum policy. ETNO, the association that represents large firms including Deutsche Telekom and French operator Orange, called for standard rules on when EU countries hold their auctions and an end to “excessive spectrum fees”.
Smaller telecoms companies are particularly worried that the Commission will introduce policies that benefit their larger competitors, which are generally former state monopolies like Telecom Italia and Telefónica that own network infrastructure and rent it out to smaller firms.
ECTA, the association that represents smaller competitors—like the UK's TalkTalk and Bouygues in France—has lobbied for rules that guarantee they can access networks. Without explicit rules protecting smaller operators, ECTA has argued its members won't be able to compete.
One of the leaked documents about the legal overhaul that was published on EURACTIV revealed that the Commission is pushing for telecoms operators to transition from older copper networks to faster fibreglass infrastructure. That could worry some of the bigger companies who want to hold onto the networks they already own. But Commission officials write in that document that they will not legally require firms to switch to fibreglass.
The document also describes the Commission’s preferred strategy on competition and says that the legal reform will not include a mandatory separation of companies’ telecoms service and network infrastructure businesses. That will mean that a decision like UK regulator Ofcom's earlier this year to force BT to separate its networks business won’t become the norm in Europe.
ETNO has pushed back against some of the smaller firms' bids to boost competition, arguing in a recent position paper that “ex-ante regulation should be removed as much as possible in favour of a greater reliance on ex-post regulatory oversight.”