Broadband internet access will become a legal right under new EU telecoms rules

Günther Oettinger [European Commission]

The European Commission is setting itself up for a fight with national governments by forcing them to pay for guaranteed internet access across the EU and comply with new rules on radio spectrum sales, according to an an internal document obtained by

Broadband internet access will be legally guaranteed under changes to EU universal services rules, while services that are currently guaranteed, like public payphones, will be taken out of the new law. National governments won’t be happy with the change because the Commission wants them to pay for guaranteed internet – instead of private telecoms companies.

The executive will propose an overhaul of EU telecoms law in September. EURACTIV previously reported that the proposal will include a new EU-wide internet speed target of 100 megabits per second by 2025.

Several measures planned for autumn are attempts to boost investment in new internet networks. Around €155 billion is still needed to meet the EU’s internet speed goal.

The move to make affordable broadband internet a right for consumers across the EU marks a major shift in the executive’s approach to boosting internet access. Consumer groups and MEPs who have pushed for the EU to improve internet coverage in rural areas will likely be happy about the change. Some MEPs may push for an even broader deal that guarantees specific internet speed or quality to all users.

National governments are expected to put up a fight about the funds the Commission wants them to front for affordable broadband. “Given its wide societal and economic benefits universal service should be financed through general budget and not through sectorial funding,” the document reads.

Telecoms operators will be relieved that they won’t have to pay to build broadband networks in rural areas where they might not already exist.

“Rural areas can’t expect much from the private sector,” one telecoms industry source said.

Only a few EU countries, including Finland and Spain, already have universal service measures requiring companies to provide cheap broadband internet access. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for a similar measure last autumn.

97% of homes in the EU are covered by broadband internet, according to Commission figures. But speeds vary and rural parts of Europe often have spotty or no access.

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The Commission is now bracing itself for tough negotiations with national governments on a number of fronts: in addition to the new internet guarantee, the executive wants to change how countries run their lucrative auctions to sell off radio spectrum.

Officials working on the proposal are hoping to diffuse the controversial spectrum plans by playing up how a radical change will speed up the switch to faster 5G mobile telecoms networks.

Commission officials suggest in the leaked document that they should sugarcoat “our spectrum proposals around the 5G narrative” because it “resonates politically well” with the European Parliament and “may also help us with member states in diverting the debate beyond the pure institutional aspects”.

The Commission wants EU countries to coordinate when they run national spectrum auctions and use the same licensing criteria for spectrum sales – and is planning to push the national auctions through a mandatory review.

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Large telecoms firms will also be rattled by the Commission’s hostility towards copper internet networks.

The Commission is pushing for telecoms companies to build new, faster fibre glass broadband networks to replace old copper infrastructure and speed up internet connections. But some telecoms companies, especially big operators, have pushed back against that plan because it would cut into their business model of owning and renting out old networks to smaller firms.

Under the new rules, the Commission wants national telecoms regulators to step in when companies don’t give up old copper networks and “eventually withdraw access obligations relating to the copper network in order to avoid ‘hold-up’” by forcing smaller operators to move to newer networks.

Günther Oettinger, the EU commissioner in charge of telecoms policy, has been wrapped up in a tense dispute with the German regulator over a draft rule that would allow giant operator Deutsche Telekom to continue using its copper networks using the controversial vectoring technology. Competing firms blasted the regulation for choking off their access to internet users.

Contracts for new internet networks could also become longer under the new EU rules. The Commission wants to make it possible for contracts to put wires in the ground to be extended beyond the legal cap of two years – if longer contracts will spur telecoms operators to invest more in building new broadband infrastructure.

Andrus Ansip and Günther Oettinger, the Commissioners working on the EU Digital Single Market, met on 20 July to discuss the plans to overhaul telecoms rules. The Commissioners are preparing to regulate internet companies as part of the new proposal, in what will be a controversial move that won’t sit well with firms including Google, Microsoft or Facebook. Some internet services will be included in the changed law, according to a separate internal document obtained by EURACTIV.

Services like Skype’s dial-out ability to phones will be regulated more heavily while platforms like WhatsApp or calls between Skype users will be affected by the new rules only if “specific regulatory obligations” are applied to hit all communications services across the board.

Large telecoms operators lobbied for the Commission to regulate internet companies because services like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger increasingly compete with mobile texting and phone calls.

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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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