European Parliament accepts telecoms competition laws

A new telecoms package was approved on Wednesday, which will free up competition in the telecommunications market

The European Parliament has accepted a compromise telecom package to open up the telecommunications market to internal competition.

The deal will bring the European telecoms industry under standard competition law, and remove the exclusive dominance that national regulatory authorities have had over the market.

"The implications will be huge," said a spokeswoman at the European Parliament (EP). "This is the largest legislative package passed during this Commission, especially on internal markets, which people see as the hard core of the European Union."

The telecom package combines 20 existing European directives into six new directives. All six respond to the Lisbon European Council's call for a liberalised internal telecoms market by the end of 2001 to diminish the gap between the European and US telecommunications industry, and pave the way to a digital society.

"The agreement is good news for Europe and good news for consumers," said e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander. "It means that the new regulatory framework can meet our Lisbon commitment. It will strengthen the communications market in Europe, and is an excellent result for consumers and operators alike."

Article 6 of the Framework Directive -- the most major part of the telecom package -- is crucial for defining who will control the telecoms market. Under the new proposals, national regulatory authorities will have the power to make decisions on their own markets, but will have to consult the regulatory bodies of other member states beforehand. In cases where a decision could affect the dominant power in the market or infringe community law, the Commission will retain the right to intervene.

The European Union hopes that the telecom package will remove the need for sector-specific telcoms regulation. "Ten years ago, the telecoms sector was classed as a general service, and so not dealt with by any competition law," said the EP spokeswoman. "The aim is apply standard EU law to this industry, and move towards general competition law."

The EP achieved a second victory at midday on Wednesday, by adopting a proposal for an independent appeals hearing for all telecom operators, service providers or customers. The new initiative will assess complaints about national telecommunications regulatory bodies.

A compromise was reached on a separate amendment dealing with digital TV. The EP had been calling for a European standard on digital TV, so that consumers could be certain about how they would be receiving emissions. But the European Council has argued that digital TV was still in its preliminary stages, with the market only beginning to develop. The EP therefore adopted a "wish" outside the telecom package, which states that the industry should aim to reach a standard on digital TV in the future. If such attempts fail, the European Commission reserves the right to impose obligatory digital TV standards across member states.

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