A Digital Single Market for telecoms

It has been over 18 months since the European Commission first adopted a new package of measures intended to complete the telecoms single market and deliver a “Connected Continent”.  However a number of factors, including Commission elections and a revisiting of priorities of the new team in charge, mean that the proposals have been slow in moving forward ever since. In reality it wasn’t really until December 2014 when the Commission published its work programme for media and telecoms that we knew for sure that the themes of a Connected Continent were still a key priority, albeit now part of a much wider debate on the creation of a Digital Single Market.

Today marked a key milestone for the plans for telecoms reform with Mr Ansip, European Commission for the Digital Single Market, formally unveiling details of the 16 steps of the Digital Single Market ( http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/digital-single-market/docs/dsm-communication_en.pdf). For the few folk who haven’t heard of it, and there will be very few indeed, the Digital Single Market is all about making today’s fragmented EU market “fit for the digital age”, moving from 28 national markets to a single one. The aims of the strategy are to (1) provide better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe; (2) create the right conditions and a level playing field to enable digital networks and innovative services to flourish; (3) maximise the growth potential of the digital economy.

Of the 16 steps published in May 2015 only one is dedicated to telecoms. It repeats the same themes of the September 2013 Connected Continent proposals of overhauling EU telecoms rules, having more effective and coordinated spectrum allocation, setting incentives for investment in high speed broadband and working to ensure that there is a level playing field for all market players, both traditional and new.

The Commission expressly identifies 5 challenges that it sees as needing to be addressed in the telecoms market in order to, in their own words, make it “fit for purpose”:

(1) Regulatory fragmentation: the Commission will tackle regulatory fragmentation to allow economies of scale for network operators, service providers and consumers, while ensuring equivalent access to essential networks.

(2) More harmonisation of spectrum: whilst acknowledging that revenues from spectrum sales should stay in domestic markets, a more harmonised regime for management of radio spectrum is necessary, particularly given the importance of spectrum for connectivity.

(3) Sufficient network investment: there need to be better ways and rules to incentivise market players to invest in high-speed broadband networks, the aim being to make sure that end-users benefit from competitive, affordable and high-quality connectivity. The idea of state funding, particularly in rural areas, is also mooted as one potential solution.

(4) Consistency of Governance: there is a need to enhance regulatory consistency, particularly on spectrum management, across Member States so as to deliver convergent market outcomes, while taking account of different local and national conditions.

(5) Create/maintain a level-playing field: the Commission will look into the growing importance of online players that provide similar or equivalent services to traditional communication services.

The Commission dubs the proposals as “ambitious”. Many would disagree. Certainly the omission of concrete proposals on roaming and net neutrality – still being left to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to finalise – does not support the idea of radical reform. Indeed, whether or not such reform is needed, whichever “net neutral” camp you sit in, is almost a secondary debate.

The telecoms reforms are on the Digital Single Market roadmap for 2016, not 2015 ( http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/digital-single-market/docs/roadmap_en.pdf). In reality we are then looking at a couple more years of debate and discussion with implementation of true telecoms reform unlikely before 2019.

Mr Ansip wanted the strategy he outlined today to be seen as “[the] starting point, not [the] finishing line”. In fact the starting point for telecoms reform and the updating of the 2009 package started years ago; and now it seems that the finishing line is even further away than before.

First published on www.olswang.com in May 2015

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