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European Commission launches overarching review of EU telecoms regulations

Out-Law News | 11 Sep 2015 | 5:29 pm | 2 min. read

An overarching review of EU telecoms regulations has been launched by the European Commission.

The Commission said the review is aimed at understanding whether the existing rules "sufficiently incentivise" businesses operating in the telecoms market to invest in the telecoms infrastructure necessary "to meet tomorrow's high-capacity demands across the whole [EU]".

The views the Commission gathers during its consultations will, it said, help to inform new "regulatory proposals" it expects to publish for the telecoms sector in 2016. It said it wants to ensure the EU's telecoms rules are sustainable, market-based, deliver a "high-performance for fixed and wireless broadband infrastructures" and are "fit for purpose for 2020 and beyond".

To achieve this, the Commission said there needs to be "effective spectrum coordination, and common EU-wide criteria for spectrum assignment at national level;" and for there to be incentives created for "investment in high-speed broadband". It also said there needs to be a "level playing field for all market players, traditional and new" and for telecoms rules to be "effective".

Telecoms law expert Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the Commission's consultation coincides with changing consumer priorities as well as "the convergence of digital services". She said both those issues need to be addressed in a policy debate.

"This needs to be done at a European level," Mullenex said. "From personal data requiring more up-to-date protection standards to the perceived barriers in switching apps and operating system, consumers do feel a need for more flexibility and clarity."

In its consultation on the evaluation and the review of the regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services, one issue the Commission asked for views on is on whether and to what extent 'over-the-top' (OTT) communication services should be regulated.

OTT service providers, like WhatsApp and Skype, rely on telecoms networks run by telecoms operators to deliver rival communication services to the ones the telecoms operators provide to consumers. Telecoms companies have argued that it is unfair that the OTT providers are subject to fewer regulations than they are despite the end services delivered to consumers being essentially the same.

The Commission's consultation has asked stakeholders for their views on whether it is necessary to alter how 'electronic communications services' is defined within the EU telecoms regulatory framework to ensure a "level regulatory playing field".

Stakeholders have been asked if they think that "traditional electronic communications services (such as voice or video telephony, SMS/text messages, e-mails operated by telecoms providers, other services) can be functionally substituted by OTT services or platforms with communication elements (e.g. internet telephony services, web messaging services, webmail services, social media platforms, other)".

If so, should those OTT services "fall under a new common definition" for 'electronic communications services', the Commission asked.

Among the other issues that the Commission has asked for stakeholders' views on is whether allocation of radio spectrum across Europe should be more harmonised and whether any "barriers" to the access of harmonised spectrum need to be removed "in order to foster economies of scale for wireless innovations and to promote competition and investment".

The Commission also framed questions around the sharing of spectrum. It said spectrum sharing "should enhance competition from additional users and in particular should not create undue competitive advantages for current or future right-holders or result in unjustified restrictions of competition".

"In principle, beneficial sharing opportunities (BSO) can be identified, in both licensed and licence-exempt frequency bands, wherever the combined net socio-economic benefit of multiple applications sharing a band is greater than the net socio-economic benefit of a single application, taking into account additional costs resulting from shared use," it said.

The Commission's consultations are open until 7 December.

EU commissioner for the digital single market Andrus Ansip said: "The internet is the oxygen of our digital economy and society. We are more and more connected, at every moment, everywhere. This means that access to high-speed and high-quality internet has become essential to every European: people, companies, organisations or public bodies."