With new EU rules requiring national postal operators to give up lucrative lingering monopolies by 2011, France is looking for new funding mechanisms to ensure that even citizens in its remotest areas continue to receive an affordable, six-days-a-week service, euractiv.fr reports.
By signing a new public service contract for 2008-2012 with the French state on 22 July, La Poste aimed to reaffirm its attachment to the universal postal service.
Four public missions
The aim of the contract is to redefine the missions of the postal operator before it is partially opened up to private capital in 2009. The four missions – as defined in the contract – include mail delivery (83% of mail to be distributed within 24 hours of being sent), newspaper distribution (six days per week throughout the territory), post office availability (“not more than 10% of the population of a department may be further than 5 kilometres and 20 minutes drive away”) and banking accessibility.
No promises on universal service funding
But questions related to the actual financing of the universal service once the French postal sector is fully opened up to competition on 1 January 2011 remained unanswered.
It is estimated that the above commitments will cost the postal operator a total of €816 million after public compensation. In the contract, the government pledges to “implement a mechanism allowing it to guarantee a financing of the universal service that is long-lasting and economically efficient,” but it gives no concrete proposals.
France’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) is more demanding than EU law obliges. Rather than a five-days-per-week collect and delivery requirement for all letters and parcels weighing less than 10kg, the French USP is asked to fulfill a six-days-per-week service for letters and packages up to 20kg. French law also foresees a minimum number of postal contact points throughout its highly diverse territory.
To finance this service, La Poste has relied heavily on income from its “reserved area”, cross-financing distribution in rural or mountainous areas, which are much more expensive to serve, with revenues made in the more lucrative, densely-populated zones. But things are about to change. And although opening the sector to competition should attract a number of new players that will take on some of the workload, most of these are likely to focus on the more profitable city-centres, leaving the costly service to the remotest areas to La Poste.
A number of financing options
“For the moment, nothing is decided and work is only just starting,” explained UMP Senator and President of the postal presence observatory Pierre Hérisson. The transposition process of the EU directive into French law should begin early 2009 and a number of options are under consideration.
- A compensation fund – Paris’ preferred option: Already established by a 20 May 2005 law, the scheme has never been used by the regulator. Concretely, each new market entrant would be required to pay into the fund in exchange for acceding to the national market. The money would then be used to finance the USO burden. But it is difficult to implement in practice: What level should the tax be set at? Should it be applied to revenues, profits or should it be a fixed amount? Should all operators be required to participate or only those with a minimal level of activity? “The compensation fund solution is looked upon rather badly by private operators,” says Sylvie Pittaro Menesson, who works on European issues at the French institute for postal research (Irepp).
- Access pricing – Brussels’ favoured approach: Private operators would be made to pay a fee to the incumbent in return for using its network. This is how it works in the UK, where the market has been fully liberalised since 1st January 2006.
Government subsidies –
possible, but expensive: The EU Directive says it will allow the use of public monies to finance the USO but, this option, though largely favoured by new member states, is unlikely to work in France within the current budgetary context.
- The generalisation of the USO – unrealistic: This would entail obliging all operators to serve the totality of the territory. But, given France’s geography, this would likely effectively prevent any new operators from entering the market. Indeed, in Finland, where this principle is applied, there is still only one market operator even though the market is supposed to be totally open.