Ministers and EC lock horns over telecom laws

Conflict reigns over how radical the telecom regulation shake-up should be

The EC and European ministers have fallen out over the direction of future telecoms legislation.

At the Telecommunications Council meeting in Luxembourg this week, ministers including the UK's e-minister Patricia Hewitt discussed the regulatory framework for electronic communications. Top of the agenda was how to avoid future debacles like the recent 3G auctions in which some countries raised ludicrous amounts of money from the selling off of spectrum. Also up for discussion was the debate over how much power the EC should be granted over telecoms watchdogs like Oftel.

While the EC is keen to have the ultimate say on what national regulators do, ministers rejected this idea. "We regret that," said an EC spokesman. "We wanted to be able to overrule if regulators made a wrong decision which would avoid lengthy litigation and ultimately benefit consumers."

Ministers instead favour a much-watered down advisory role for the EC in the day to day running of national regulators. Parliament, however, agrees with the EC and both minister and parliament have to agree before the legislation can be passed. "The argument goes on," said the spokesman.

Michael Ryan, head of telecommunications at law firm Arnold & Porter, is not entirely surprised that ministers rejected the EC's plea for greater power over individual regulators. "The Commission's proposal was unprecedented in terms of the power it would put in its own hands. If there is a case for this they didn't convince ministers," he said.

The real solution probably lies at local level, thinks Ryan. "There is certainly a lot wrong with the way the current mandate is being enforced by national regulators but whether power should be shifted to Brussels is open to question. National regulators are closer to the action and it is up to them to get tougher on incumbents."

The other area of disagreement is over the future allocation of spectrum licences. "The member states don't think it is a good idea to have greater coordination. We don't agree and think there should be a level playing field," said the EC spokesman. Again parliament seems to side with the Commission and must convince ministers to change their minds.

It was not all disagreement in Luxembourg, however. Member states agreed upon a common framework for electronic communications, a directive on access and interconnection of electronic communications and a directive on authorisation of electronic networks and services. Commissioner Liikanen is happy that Europe is progressing towards its goal of being the most competitive economy in the world as decided by the European Council in Lisbon last year.

"The whole package will mean substantial simplification and cuts a lot of red tape. It will lead to a more competitive market that will ultimately benefit consumers with cheaper prices and more services," explains the EC spokesman.

If all goes well it is hoped the telecoms laws will be adopted by the end of the year.

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