Bulgaria makes telecoms overhaul a focus during Council presidency

Bulgaria wants to push ahead talks on a draft reform of EU telecoms law when it takes over the lead on member states' legal negotiations in January. [Pexels]

Bulgaria will focus its attention on speeding up negotiations on a major telecoms bill when it takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of ministers in January.

When the country takes the lead on member state legislative negotiations next month, it will be in charge of pushing talks ahead on a number of proposals that the European Commission has made since 2015 as part of its digital single market initiative.

Bulgaria is particularly eager to move quickly on the telecoms legislation – known as the electronic communications code, which the Commission proposed last year.

“This is our first and foremost priority,” a spokeswoman from the Bulgarian Presidency told EURACTIV.com.

“The majority of our work will be focused on this huge file.”

More generally speaking, the biggest priority of the Bulgarian Presidency is the European perspective and connectivity of the Western Balkans.

The Commission is now rushing to try to seal agreements on all of its digital single market proposals files by 2019.

Legislators’ discussions on a number of digital files are moving slowly or are stalled, including on the controversial ePrivacy bill and the overhaul of EU copyright law.

But the Balkan country named the telecoms bill as a digital policy priority for its half-year stint in the legislative hotseat. Its other focus areas include moving negotiations ahead on the tricky EU copyright bill, the ePrivacy regulation and a draft new cybersecurity law.

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Separately from those digital single market policies, Bulgaria wants to push ahead a new plan to lower mobile roaming fees between the EU and Western Balkan countries.

One minute of mobile phone communication between Bulgaria and Serbia, two neighbouring countries, costs €2 on average. On 9 December a bilateral memorandum at ministerial level was signed with the aim of bringing down roaming prices in the next six months.

Three-way talks between national governments, the European Parliament and the Commission over a sweeping new EU telecoms law began in autumn, while Estonia was leading member states’ legislative negotiations. All three institutions must agree to the final version of the law before it can go into effect.

Discussions have so far been tripped up by a smattering of disagreements, including over the Commission’s proposal to create more common rules on how member states auction off mobile radio spectrum to telecoms companies.

“Some of the articles were agreed but not those that have the highest political importance, bringing investment certainty for the industry,” a Bulgarian official said of the member states’ agreements so far on spectrum.

But compared to some other contentious digital single market files, negotiations on the telecoms bill are moving ahead.

The Commission published a “roadmap” last month recommending the Bulgarian Presidency secure a final deal on the telecoms bill by the end of its leadership role in June.

Bulgaria wants to meet that goal.

The presidency spokeswoman said that Bulgaria will make the telecoms bill a priority because it is a large, detailed proposal and negotiations with the European Parliament are still in an early phase.

There is added pressure on the Bulgarian presidency to meet the Council’s goal for faster 5G mobile networks to be available across Europe by 2025. Ministers endorsed a new roadmap to aim for that at a meeting in Brussels earlier this month.

As part of the roadmap, telecoms ministers agreed that 5G should already be available “in at least one city per member state” by 2020. That will be a busy year: if all goes according to plan, the new telecoms bill will also go into effect by 2020.

“We should not delay,” the Bulgarian official said, referring to how the legal negotiations could affect plans to introduce 5G in cities by 2020.

Bulgaria has so far received low marks in the Commission’s annual rankings of how member states measure up on a number of digital indicators. It came in 27 out of 28 countries overall in 2017, and fell to spot 26, down from 23 last year, on telecoms connectivity issues.

The country was ranked 26 on 4G network coverage, and came in at 27th place both for its ability to make radio spectrum available and for the percentage of households that use fixed broadband internet.

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