European ministers yesterday (5 December) gave conditional support for the European Commission’s 'Connected Continent' proposals for greater harmonisation of the EU telecoms markets, but cast doubt over the substance and timing.
The tepid response by telecommunications ministers from the 28 member states – conducting an orientation debate on the proposal in Brussels – could stymie Digital Affairs Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ hope of achieving an agreement on a proposed regulation before the end of her tenure in 2014.
“Member states raised concerns that the balance between the interests of all stakeholders is not yet achieved and the consolidation that might result from the proposal could harm some markets and operators,” Rimantas Sinkevi?ius, Lithuania’s minister of transport and communications said.
The proposal received almost full support from Italy and the Netherlands, but Austria, Cyprus, France, Finland and Slovakia all expressed strong concerns.
Ministers sceptical on roaming proposals
Reduced mobile phone roaming charges was the popular leading act in the European Commission's proposal to harmonise the telecoms sector, which also included controversial attempts to level EU access to the internet and radio spectra.
The Commission's roaming proposals would eliminate charges for receiving calls across borders within the bloc, and a cap of €0.19 per minute for those making calls across EU borders.
Ministers supported the aim of reducing roaming charges, but many said existing roaming proposals need to be implemented before new ones are adopted, and others claimed the proposals would distort competition.
“We support the aim but believe the new mechanism is unnecessary because existing roaming proposals have not yet been implemented, so this needs further discussion,” said Peter Ramsauer, Germany's federal minister for urban development and transport.
This stance was also echoed by the Finnish, Slovenian, Hungarian and Estonian ministers.
Meanwhile ministers from Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and Spain were concerned that the roaming proposals would distort competition in the market.
“We are worried that the 'roam like at home' proposal might lead to higher roaming prices,” said Anna-Karin Hat, the Swedish minister for information technology.
Member states protective of spectrum
The proposal's attempt to coordinate the timing, duration and sale conditions of radio spectrum frequencies, in an attempt to give operators more certainty when investing across multiple European markets, met with some strong resistance.
Under the proposal, member states would retain overall control of the process of spectrum sales, but these would be subject to scrutiny and sanctions from Brussels. Although ministers broadly agreed that spectrum auctions require more harmonisation, all the larger states called for this to stop short of the centralised control currently envisaged by Brussels.
“We need better coordination of spectrum, but we need to ensure that rights of member states must not be rolled back,” said Germany's Ramsauer.
“Spectrum is a national asset; member states do not want to see that changed,” said Leo Varadkar, the Irish minister for transport, tourism and sport.
Many ministers expressed concerns that the Commission’s proposals to harmonise consumer protections in the proposal would have the effect of diluting their own existing domestic provisions.
Kroes remains upbeat but unimpressed with Lithuanian presidency
Concluding the debate, Sinkevi?ius said: “For a number of these issues, for example spectrum or roaming, irrespective of the possible added-value of some provisions of the proposed regulation, there is the shared sentiment that instruments under the existing regulatory framework are not used to their full potential.”
However Kroes took issue with the Lithuanian presidency’s interpretation of the debate, claiming that the conclusions had been written before the debate started.
She told ministers before the debate that she was “pleasantly surprised” at the progress made in the Parliament on the proposal, but added: “I am worried about the Council. We have seen little concrete action in six weeks.”
A spokesman for Kroes said: “She has been unimpressed with the attitude of the Lithuanian Presidency and doesn’t think it [Sinkevi?ius' conclusion] is a fair reflection of what national leaders want.”