Ministers give telecoms proposals tepid approval, timing in doubt


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.

Read >> 'Connected continent' plan seeks harmonised EU telecoms market

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.”

“ETNO is committed to cooperate with the co-legislators to make sure that the Connected Continent Regulation effectively tackles the current problems of the sector,” said a spokesman for the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO).

“The improvements that we suggest are aimed at achieving four main objectives: a regulatory environment that fosters investments in Next Generation Networks, measures resulting in a positive impact on the sector’s investment capacity, the acceleration of the deployment of mobile networks and the adoption of Open internet rules supporting service differentiation and quality.”

"The draft Connected Continent Regulation includes some positive elements, for example with regard to spectrum, but on balance it risks undermining regulatory certainty, clarity and consistency, both for consumers and businesses,” said Martin Whitehead, the director of GSMA Europe, representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide.

“The GSMA urges all parties to start work as quickly as possible on a comprehensive review of the existing regulatory framework for electronic communications with a focus on how to address the underlying reasons for Europe’s lagging investment in communications infrastructure. However, some important elements that are missing in the current proposals could be brought forward and introduced at this stage as additional targeted measures. The equal regulatory treatment of all industry players providing functionally equivalent services is a case in point,” Whitehead concluded.

The proposals, released this Autumn (11 September), are intended to kick-start the underperforming European telecoms sector, in comparison to its US and Asian rivals, and incentivise investment in ultra-fast broadband networks.

While the telecoms market has largely opened up to competition over the years, offering lower prices and better services to customers, the sector still operates largely on the basis of 28 national markets, the Commission believes.

In particular, "there is no telecoms company that operates across the whole EU, and both operators and customers face differing prices and rules," the EU executive said in a statement.

9 Dec. 2013: Parliament's committee on industry, research and communications to consider its draft report on the proposal and to announce deadline for tabling amendments

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