BRUSSELS—At the behest of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's digital chiefs have set out a raft of proposals in an effort to deliver Internet access to everyone, everywhere—but not everyone is happy.
The new telecoms package—a proposed law called the European Electronic Communications Code—seeks to do this in three main ways, giving new rights to consumers, new measures to stimulate investment, and new obligations to Internet services. That last element has already provoked concern from Internet companies.
An industry lobby group whose members include Google, Facebook, and Microsoft has expressed concern about the proposed rules.
“By including online communications services in the scope of these sort of telecoms rules, the commission will fragment the market with 28 sets of rules to be followed rather than one. This is the opposite of its stated objective. It may also drive some popular communications options out of the market,” claimed the Computer and Communications Industry Association’s Europe vice president James Waterworth.
Over the top
So-called over the top communications services, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Japanese VoIP app maker Viber, will—under the proposed rule—have to make sure that their servers and networks are secure, that disabled users have equivalent access to their services, and that users can reach emergency numbers if technically possible.
Categorising these services in this way may mean that, in the future, they will have to comply with certain ePrivacy rules as well.
Communications services which use numbers to enable all end-users to reach each other—for example certain Skype services—will also have to comply with many of the laws that apply to traditional providers, including the requirement to provide clearer contractual information to customers, to make switching easier and to allow consumers to call emergency services for free.
Industry group DigitalEurope said it was crucial that the new rules “remain proportionate, technically feasible, and supportive of innovation.” Its director John Higgins added: “What we need to do now is to ensure that the additional proposed rules for online communications don't inadvertently hamper innovation and that they are in line with technical realities.”
Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake described the proposals as a “mixed bag.” She said:
Internet access is vital, so it makes sense for national governments to help guarantee Internet access for all, especially when rural areas cannot expect much from the private sector.
The ultimate goal of any EU-intervention in the telecoms sector should be to promote competition in order to have improved access to better networks at the lowest possible price. However, this does not mean giving a free pass to network owners to kill competition from innovative online competitors such as Skype or WhatsApp.
Waterworth, meanwhile, argued that as online communications services often allow users to communicate for free or at low cost, many such companies, especially smaller ones, “may not be able to comply with these regulations in all markets.”
Internet for all
Juncker was keen to stress, in his “State of the Union” speech on Wednesday morning, a new fund to bring free Wi-Fi to every town, village, and city in the EU . A new €120 million fund under the Connecting Europe Facility will be available to providers of public services to help them offer free public Wi-Fi access points to citizens. This scheme has the potential to deliver 40 to 50 million Wi-Fi connections per day, the commission said.
“We need connectivity that people can afford and use while on the move. To achieve that, spectrum policies must be better coordinated across the EU. More competition and further integration of the European market will allow us to reach these goals, helped by the right environment created by the new Communications Code,” said Brussels’ digital vice president Andrus Ansip, who referred to a proposed new law that incorporates a number of existing legislative measures.
Ansip’s number two, Günther Oettinger, added that “connectivity is a key prerequisite for the Internet of Things, digitisation of industry, cloud, and big data.”
Last year, 71 percent of European households had access to the Internet with download speeds of at least 30Mbps—a figure that dramatically drops to 28 percent in rural areas. Average coverage of 4G in Europe is 86 percent but, again, rural areas are under served with only 36 percent.
To supposedly tackle this, the commission has set new targets to be in place by 2025. All households—rural and urban—should have access to connectivity offering a download speed of at least 100Mbps, which can be upgraded to Gbps, while all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, should have uninterrupted 5G coverage, it said. As an interim target, 5G tech should be commercially available in at least one major city in each EU country by 2020.
However, some operators believe the targets should go further. Vodafone said:
We would welcome a revision upwards of the 100Mbps connectivity target for European households by 2025; if Europe is to embrace fully its Gigabit Society vision and all the economic benefits that will bring, we should set an ambition now for 1 gigabit (1000Mbps) speeds for everyone.
MEP and Socialists & Democrats vice president Kathleen van Brempt was equally sceptical. “The commission is promising to finally deliver Internet for all. However, former Commissioner [Neelie] Kroes had already promised all EU citizens broadband coverage by 2013 and, by 2020, fast broadband coverage at 30Mbps with at least half of European households subscribing to broadband access at 100Mbps,” she said.
“In reality, we are far from that,” Brempt added. “Therefore, although we of course applaud the aims, promises alone will not get us there. We expect a clear framework, setting out responsibilities and stipulating who needs to do what and when.”
The commission also wants all main “socio-economic drivers,” such as schools, universities, research centres, transport hubs, hospitals, and providers of public services to have access to 1Gbps connections by 2025.
As expected, thanks to a leak on July 29, basic broadband access will be considered a universal service under EU law, if the proposed rules pass muster. This means everybody should be able to get access to basic Internet and voice communications at an affordable price. This price will be determined by national regulators.
EU countries are required by law to make sure that vulnerable citizens can access these so-called universal services. In the past this has included things like public payphones and phone directories. As part of Wednesday's package, the commission decided to drop this particular requirement—although member states can keep the obligation at national level if there is a need.
The “basic Internet and voice communications” to which citizens will be entitled will be defined "by way of a dynamic list of online services usable over the broadband connection" rather than speed, the commission said. Essentially, users must be able to access e-mail, search engines, news, basic training, and education online tools, job searching tools, professional networking, social media, e-government service use, buying services, Internet banking, calls, and standard quality video calls.
Stronger consumer protection also comes in the form of new rules that allow customers to switch suppliers, even when signed up to bundled deals of Internet, phone, TV, mobile, and so on.
Providers will be obliged to create short summaries of contracts so that customers can understand the essentials without reading pages and pages of small print. Consumption control tools, and mandatory price and quality comparison tools will also allow for more informed choices.
Monique Goyens, the director general of European consumer body BEUC, said she was disappointed that the commission had failed to tackle “unjustifiably high prices for consumers when they call another EU country from home.”
She claimed that the commission had “disregarded evidence about prohibitive prices for international phone calls. Lower prices and higher demand would be a win-win for consumers and telecom providers.” She argued: “A real single market will not see the light of day as long as consumers continue worrying if the friend they are calling lives in a different country.”
Access rules and investment in 5G
A 5G action plan published by the commission was broadly welcomed by the European Telecommunications Operators’ Association, Cable Europe, and GSMA.
It sets out a common EU calendar for a coordinated 5G commercial launch in 2020, as well as “joint work with member states and industry stakeholders to identify and allocate spectrum bands for 5G, organise pan-European 5G trials as of 2018, promote common global 5G standards, and encourage the adoption of national 5G deployment roadmaps across all the EU.”
The commission said:
Reaching our connectivity objectives is estimated to require €500 billion investment over the coming decade. This money will largely have to come from private sources. However, under current investment trends, there is likely to be a €155 billion investment shortfall.
It added that the commission plans to launch a European Broadband Fund combining private and public investments before the end of the year. One of the considerations is to provide venture capital to startups developing 5G solutions for innovative applications and services across industrial sectors.
There are also proposed new rules designed to make it easier for smaller operators to get effective access to the ducts and poles of dominant operators—something that has long been a bugbear for ISPs competing with former state monopoly BT in the UK , for example. Unsurprisingly, the European Competitive Telecommunications Association claimed that changes to this so-called Significant Market Power regime may not be a “silver bullet to ensure effective competition.”
It added: “Physical access continues to be what enables alternative operators to compete, invest, and innovate and therefore to offer higher speeds at more affordable prices. However, the code should put more focus on physical access to specified network elements and/or facilities.”
Meanwhile, Fibre to the Home Council Europe—a lobby group pushing for superfast broadband speeds that is opposed to incumbents sweating their copper assets—said that focusing on infrastructure-based competition and regulatory tools that enable it, such as duct access, is the right policy choice to drive fibre investment. “The progressive thinking of the European Commission pointing towards ubiquitous fibre coverage for the whole of Europe is the right way forward in the global digital race,” its president Ronan Kelly said.
Wholesale-only market players who realise privately-funded investments in networks and then only deal with selling or renting access to them without offering services to end-users will have lighter access obligations if they are still deemed dominant players in the market.
In terms of radio-frequencies, Wednesday's wide-ranging proposals also set out plans for “long licence durations, coupled with more stringent requirements to use spectrum effectively and efficiently.”
Finally, the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications will be elevated to fully-fledged agency status. The revamped agency will have additional resources, as well as retaining the current technical expertise from national regulators.
If the proposal is approved, BEREC would gain some legally binding powers to ensure that the regulatory framework is applied consistently, such as providing guidelines to the bloc’s domestic watchdogs on geographical surveys, developing common approaches to meeting transnational end-user demand, delivering opinions on draft national measures on radio spectrum assignments, and resolving cross-border disputes.
Listing image by P. Mikołajek via Wikimedia Commons
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