Europe unwraps 'single market' telecoms package, offers operators a roaming-law dodge

The EC's digital VP Neelie Kroes will unveil the full telecoms package later this week, but has given a taster of what the continent can expect.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The European Commission's digital chief, Neelie Kroes, has unveiled a preview of Europe's long-awaited telecoms reform package that aims to deliver a single European telecoms market and accelerate mobile and fixed line broadband investments.

The package, to be revealed in full on Thursday, following Europe's State of the Union address, aims to reshape a regulatory structure that has so far failed to deliver a single telecoms market in Europe.

Key areas of reform include reducing cross-border regulatory trade hurdles, better coordination of spectrum allocation, network access standardisation, net neutrality, mobile roaming charges, fixed call regulation, and consumer protection.

The new package won't kill off roaming charges immediately, but the EU will add a new "carrot" to its current gradual cap-based phase-out of roaming premiums, the last of which was introduced on 1 July

Though full details are not available yet, the preview documents show that operators will be able to avoid regulation by cutting out roaming charges from 2014. The EU however will kill incoming roaming call charges in 2014, leaving data, outbound calls, and SMS subject to the current caps.

In leaked earlier drafts of the proposal, the EU appeared to be considering creating a single telecoms regulator to replace 28 national authorities, but this idea appears to have been shelved in favour streamlining regulator approvals in addition to new oversight and enforcement powers for the commission.

Operators planning to launch cross-border services anywhere in Europe only need seek authorisation from one national regulator, which will become a "reference regulator" for all authorisations — including subsequent withdrawal and suspensions.

Cross-border services will also be supported with new efforts to standardise fixed access products across multiple regions. 

While retaining the current 28 national regulators, the commission could under the proposal force regulators to withdraw any draft proposal that does not comply with EU law. Regulators would also be bound to making decisions that promote investment.

The proposal will also attempt to accelerate investments in Europe's 4G broadband infrastructure by tackling how regulators release spectrum and how operators use their allotments. Operators could, for example, have their spectrum licenses revoked if the spectrum is not used, while the commission will gain new powers to review national assignment procedures and timetables. The proposal will not clear the way for a pan-European spectrum licence, however.

The reforms will also seek to "guarantee" net neutrality by preventing operators from blocking or throttling competing services, while allowing them to offer "higher" or "guaranteed" speed services according to user needs — a move that seems to be in-line with Kroes' comments earlier this year supporting the right of operators to sell a "basic package for a lower cost” but not discriminating against services. 

Operators will be required to make broadband speeds transparent and guarenteed, while providing consumers plain language contracts and make it easier to switch providers or contract. 

Meanwhile, fixed line calls to other EU countries will be charged in line with long-distance domestic calls.

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