Euro telco super-regulator plan savaged

Industry figures and government ministers have panned the European Commission's plan, at an event where Net neutrality and roaming charges were also debated

The European Commission's proposal for a pan-European telecommunications super-regulator was widely derided at a major seminar in Westminster on Thursday.

Delegates at the Westminster eForum consultation seminar on the EU telecommunications review — consultation on which is due to close in a week's time — were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the suggestion.

Many, though, also acknowledged flaws in the current system.

"The current framework has certainly not created a common regime across EU member states," said Carphone Warehouse's head of telecoms regulation, Rickard Granberg, who complained that the differing pace of regulation and fragmentation of remedies between member states "does create difficulties and obstacles for a fixed telecommunications operator wanting to enter the market".

However, Granberg said that "on balance" his company disagreed that one regulator would be the answer. "We need a swifter and more detailed enforcement of existing rules," he explained, adding that this could "only be done by national regulators".

That view was echoed by Professor Peter Humphreys, director of the European Policy Research Unit at the University of Manchester, who suggested that national regulators knew their individual markets best.

Humphreys argued that the option of a single EU regulator, independent of the European Commission, was "not politically saleable", and claimed that the alternative — extending the Commission's power of veto to cover remedies imposed by national regulators — would lead to greater consistency.

"It seems quite sensible for the Commission to propose… a moderate power of veto," said Humphreys. "This does not mean a one-size-fits-all approach [but] I don't think the Commission is thinking this way. There should be every expectation that the Commission should continue to act in the restrained way it has so far," he continued, adding that the EC had thus far been "an honest broker", relying heavily on consultation and aiming predominantly for a "consensual approach".

BT's representative at the event, director of European affairs Stephen Crisp, also supported the extension of the veto to cover remedies, but added that BT was "not ideological about vetoes" and "[suspects] a European regulator is not the right answer".

Crisp also said that BT was "opposed to [the Commission's favouring of] structural separation" between incumbents' service and wholesale departments — a fate that has already befallen BT itself, which had to create the Openreach services spin-off at the insistence of Ofcom.

Ofcom's director of international, Alex Blowers, said he was "surprised" that there had been "a degree of support from certain players in the industry" for the idea that the EC should be able to veto remedies imposed by national regulators.

"There is a legitimate concern [that] in a number of member states it looks like regulation has been dilatory and half-hearted, but it is not a legitimate concern that can be [solved] by a veto on remedies," Blowers told the audience. While conceding that there would always be problems with a consistent quality of regulation across 25 member states, he suggested the solution was to get regulators "to work more efficiently between each other".

"We believe there is an argument for greater coherence and consistency of regulation [but] national market difference needs to be reflected," he elaborated.

Blowers also raised the issue of Net neutrality — a major issue in the United States that has quietly been bubbling under the surface in the rest of the world. The debate centres on the concept of Internet service providers being able to tier their services, effectively allowing them to regulate the speed at which certain types of content can be accessed and enabling preferential treatment for certain content providers.

"The Commissioner thinks Net neutrality needs to be addressed," said Blowers, who claimed a lack of relevant regulation in America had led to the issue being so explosive there. "It is probably not sufficient to just talk about competition powers to deal with Net neutrality," he continued, before suggesting that, if tiered services were introduced in the UK and Europe, "there should be sufficient transparency in the market that consumers can make informed choices".

"There is nothing that requires a new tranch of powers to address that issue [at the moment]," Blowers added.

The subject of the EC’s ongoing assault on mobile roaming charges also came up, with Ilsa Godlovitch, head of regulatory affairs for the European Competitive Telecommunications Association (ECTA), saying the EC proposal to impose limits on retail pricing were "not necessarily a terrible thing" but stressing that this could only be done "if you do not undermine the regulators".

Godlovitch warned that such price controls would impact the whole telecoms market, through the move towards fixed-mobile convergence. She also claimed that two elements of the EC’s telecommunications proposals may need altering — a reference to "metallic" cables, which she said did not take account of the rise of fibre networks, and references to public telephone networks, which she said would "dead" after next generation networks were introduced.

The Department for Trade and Industry’s deputy director for EU ICT policy and regulation, Nigel Hickson, also weighed into the roaming debate, claiming that the Commission’s stance was "excellent in principle" but warning that "disadvantaged" pay-as-you-go users would be the biggest losers "if the level of retail regulation is wrong".