The European Commission has urged member states not to relax the rules governing third-generation mobile phone licences or to return any of the money spent on 3G licences by mobile operators, despite lobbying from the hard-pressed mobile phone industry.
In a consultation paper published on Wednesday morning, the EC recommended that 3G licence conditions should not be altered, even though many experts are concerned about the massive sums of many paid by mobile operators for the licences.
"In principle the licensing conditions should not be changed because the (mobile) sector is best served by a predictable environment," said the EC in a statement. "Changes to licence conditions should be envisaged only when circumstances have changed unpredictably," it added.
The EC is also concerned that health fears could hamper the rollout of 3G networks, and wants European governments to put more effort into reassuring the public that mobile handsets and masts are safe.
The telecoms sector has slumped badly since at least 110bn euros (£71bn) was spent on 3G licences across Europe, and some analysts believe that this 3G debt could force many mobile phone companies into bankruptcy.
Mobile phone operators are understood to have been lobbying both national and European politicians in an attempt to persuade them to return some of the licence money, or to extend the lifetime of the licences.
This pleading has not found favour with the EC, though, which has firmly rejected the idea of giving back any of the money raised through 3G auctions or beauty contests. "Changes in licence fees or charges or other fees associated with 3G licences once the licensing procedure is closed can be clearly counter-productive, viewed from a business perspective," the Commission said.
The position taken in the EC consultation paper contradicted some media reports that had claimed the Commission would allow governments to renegotiate 3G licence terms.
Rollout rocked by health scares
Hutchison 3G is expected to launch the UK's first 3G services before the end of this year, with Orange, O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone expected to follow in 2003 or 2004. Creating a 3G network requires the installation of a large number of 3G masts, a process that had been hampered by public opposition, due to concerns over possible health dangers. In many parts of the country there are local groups fighting the building of mobile phone masts, and there are concerns that this could make it extremely tricky for mobile operators to complete the rollout of 3G. Some UK councils, including Kent, have responded to public concerns over mobile masts by refusing to allow any more base stations to be built on their land. One Labour MP is currently trying to change the law to make it harder for mobile operators to get planning permission for 3G base stations. The EC wants governments and local councils to take action to help 3G operators. "In the short term, public authorities should facilitate the physical deployment of networks by harmonising the applicable rules for the authorisations of base stations and speeding up the procedures for the acquisition of sites. In addition, they can help improving public awareness on safe usage of mobile equipment," said the EC.