New telecoms rules mark ‘quiet revolution’ as Commission aims to boost internet speed

Gunther Oettinger, the EU commissioner in charge of the digital single market, will present the new telecoms rules today (14 September). [European Commission]

A set of EU telecoms laws will be remodelled when the European Commission proposes an overhaul today (14 September) of how the sector is governed.

The changes will mark a dramatic shift in how national regulators can sanction companies caught breaking the law and upend rules that balance competition between big and small operators.

Judging by leaked versions of what the Commission will present later today, the executive looks poised for fresh fights with national governments over a renewed push to gain control over radio spectrum, the waves that control telecommunications.

The Commission previously proposed plans to carve out an EU-wide spectrum policy in 2013, but those hopes were shattered by national governments that were unwilling to loosen their grasp over lucrative auctions to sell off spectrum bands to telecoms firms.

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National governments could also push back against the Commission’s plan to designate broadband internet access a guaranteed right around the entire EU—only a small number of households do not have access now, but the executive could be stepping on toes by making national governments front the bill for building that access.

The changes to telecoms rules will unnerve companies across the board—including big former state monopolies like Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica and their smaller competitors—by cutting across rivalries to serve up new competition rules that do not meet either sides’ demands.

If the proposal doesn’t immediately draw a wave of audible backlash, it is because it will be overshadowed by a set of more controversial and hotly fought over changes to copyright law that the Commission will also present this afternoon.

But not all telecoms operators stand to lose out from the overhaul: Vodafone will likely be happy about the Commission’s proposal to make it easier for competitors to access big operators’ infrastructure. The firm has argued that will cut costs for companies looking to build fibre networks.

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Much of the legal change is driven by the Commission’s target to increase internet speeds to a minimum of 100 megabits per second in every household in the EU by 2025—and up to a gigabit in places like hospitals and schools.

To meet that goal, the Commission is coming out strongly in favour of telecoms networks made out of faster fibreglass instead of older copper cables. Some firms that still rely on copper networks—and don’t want to be forced to give up the infrastructure they already own—could put up a fight to tone down the pro-fibre position once the proposal goes into negotiations with the European Parliament and national governments.

One telecoms industry source called the proposal a “quiet revolution”.

Others were surprised by how strongly the Commission positioned itself, risking admonishment from some companies for being partial to one kind of technology over another.

“This is really the right political ambition because fibre will enable almost literally everything that we use in our daily lives,” said Erzsebet Fiori, director general of the FTTH Council Europe, an association that lobbies for more fibre broadband networks.

The Commission acknowledges that fibre networks will speed up internet connections to meet industrial needs for faster service—just as the executive is rallying support for the so-called internet of things, or the trend towards cars and devices becoming connected to the internet.

Telecoms operators will face new rules on competition with rivals

Telecoms companies will face new rules on how they can access internet networks under a change to EU law that could stoke tensions between large, former monopolies and smaller operators.

The European Commission announced as part of its digital single market plans that it would propose telecoms legislation in 2016, likely after the summer. The Commission's public consultation on regulation of the telecoms sector ended in December 2015.

The upcoming reform is expected to affect investment in telecoms networks, access to networks and competition with internet services like Skype and Whatsapp. Big incumbent telecoms companies argue those services aren't regulated as rigorously - and they demand a 'level playing field'.

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