Europe’s most ambitious plan yet to fix the telecoms market – what you need to know

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The European Commission just adopted its “most ambitious plan in 26 years of telecoms market reform” to try and build a single telecoms market in Europe. 

The proposal, formally adopted yesterday, gets a full press launch today. It includes the Commission’s first big attempt to tackle net neutrality, a plan to end roaming premiums by 2016, and a number of measures to cut red tape, protect telecoms customers and encourage investment. 

Europe is painfully aware that its fragmented telecoms market is holding it back. The Commission expects the planned reforms to boost the digital economy, create jobs and raise the region’s GDP by an estimated 0.9 per cent, or more than €100bn, each year.

That assumes all happens as planned. It’s already taken three years to get to this point and the proposal still needs to make it through more meetings and lobbying before sign-off by the region’s 28 countries and the European Parliament.

If the current version becomes law, these changes will take effect from 1 July 2014: 

Less red tape for operators

Operators would only need a single authorisation to operate in all 28 member states in Europe instead of one for each.

No more roaming charges – by 2016

No more charges for receiving calls while roaming from July 2014. Operators would be given two options for cutting roaming charges on outgoing calls: either offer users a “roam like at home” service by 1 July 2016 or give them the right to switch to a cheaper provider while travelling without needing to buy a new SIM card. 

No more international call premiums

Companies wouldn’t be able to charge more for fixed calls within the EU than long-distance domestic calls – unless there’s a “specific and objective” cost-recovery reason. Calls between mobiles wouldn’t cost more than €0.19 per minute (plus VAT).

Protection for the open internet (net neutrality)

The blocking and throttling of certain internet content – including services such as Skype and WhatsApp that rival telecoms operators – would be banned. Companies would still be able to do deals to give special treatment to services such as internet protocol television (IPTV) and video conferencing but not if it has a “recurring or continuous” negative impact on the “general quality” of other internet services. 

New consumer rights

Switching providers or contracts would be easier and customers could demand plain-language contracts. Companies would have to offer a contract that only lasts a year and wouldn’t be able to sell contracts with a minimum period of more than two years.

More co-ordinated spectrum allocation

This will, apparently, ensure Europeans get more 4G mobile access and WiFi. Member states would still be in charge but the timing and duration of spectrum auctions would be brought together to make it easier for cross-border mobile operators.

More access to networks and WiFi hotspots

Another part of the package, aimed at giving more certainty to investors, regulates the costs that incumbent operators may charge for access to their existing copper networks and tries to ensure equal access among “access seekers”. According to GigaOm’s David Meyer, the package “also forces national regulators and ISPs to let people share their WiFi hotspots with others, Fon-style, without making them have to register as a ‘provider of electronic communications to the public’.”

And what didn’t make it into the final draft? There’ll be no single telecoms regulator in Europe, no pan-European spectrum license and – in a nod to the above point – no change to the definition of “electronic communications services provider”.

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Image credit: Flickr user garryknight

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