EC repeats call for telco super-regulator

An EU-wide telecommunications super-regulator could help avoid 'ping-pong' between individual states and the Commission

The European Commission's Information Society Commissioner has reiterated her desire to introduce a pan-European telecommunications super-regulator.

Viviane Reding said on Thursday that the current system — whereby countries take care of their own telecoms regulation — had frequently resulted in a game of "ping pong" between national regulators and the European Commission.

Reding cited a recent incident where the EC was forced to convince a national regulator that its leased-line policy required more attention as the Europen body had better information than the local organisation. A "wrong decision" would have been made without the Commission's surveillance, she warned.

"The most effective and least bureaucratic way to achieve a real level playing field for telecom operators across the EU would be… an independent European telecom authority that would work together with national regulators in a system similar to the European System of Central Banks," Reding said in a speech given to the European Competitive Telecommunications Association.

An earlier speech by Reding on the same issue back in June prompted a largely negative reaction from the telecommunications industry and Ofcom, the UK regulator. A common view expressed at a Westminster eForum consultation seminar last month was that national regulators knew their markets best.

This viewpoint was acknowledged by Reding in her speech on Thursday, but she maintained that "two pairs of eyes see more than only one", effectively suggesting that close scrutiny by the Commission or a future super-regulator is necessary to spot mistakes or oversights made by national regulators.

One alternative that has met with greater approval within the industry has been the suggestion that the EC should have its powers of "market-control" extended from market analyses to the "remedies", or solutions, proposed by national regulators. This veto-extension option was also repeated by Reding on Thursday.

Ovum analyst Tony Lavender said the key challenge was to create a set of rules that encourage competition, innovation and investment, "while not being so inflexible or burdensome that they damage Europe's competitiveness". However, the industry and the Commission would have to make do with the current situation for a while yet — the new framework is unlikely to become law before 2009, he said.

Lavender added that he found it "hard to see how this can be fully achieved with the deficiencies of the current framework and fragmented national approaches".

Reding also suggested that Europe might need a dedicated agency to manage radio spectrum and ensure harmonisation of frequency uses across member states, adding that this was "not a question of a shift in power, but relates instead to efficient spectrum management". One alternative may be to integrate spectrum "into the mandate of a possible future EU telecom authority" — another reference to the proposed super-regulator.

Three spectrum-related moves proposed by Reding included strengthening the principles of technology and service neutrality when allocating spectrum, introducing spectrum trading in certain bands, and making it easier for developers of new "wireless services with a wider reach than a single country" to enter the market without having to worry about each member state's licensing conditions.

The spectrum freed up by the shut-down of analogue television by 2012 would also be a "window of opportunity for change", said Reding, who added that the released spectrum could be used to promote new services.

"We need to make sure that we do not foreclose any service in deciding on how the freed spectrum should best be used," Reding continued. The high-frequency spectrum could be used for services such as mobile broadband and 3G.

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