Current state of play
Telecoms regulatory framework
The current EU regulatory framework is a package of five directives and two regulations which has the following aims:
- promotion of competition in the telecoms sector by regulating access and fees for certain landline and mobile infrastructure - in this regard the Commission has the power to veto certain measures proposed by national regulators;
- reduction of costs for deploying high-speed electronic communications networks and investments in broadband networks supporting high-speed internet and regulation of the use of wireless technologies, such as 3G and LTE;
- consumer protection, in particular with regard to end-user contracts and transparency; and
- harmonisation and abolition of roaming charges within the EU by 2017.
'Connected Continent' legislative package
Pursuing the goal of a European 'Digital Single Market', the Commission has proposed legislative changes to the existing telecoms regulatory framework which, amongst others, include:
- new criteria for regulating telecoms markets so that national regulators would have to consider competitive issues arising from 'over the top' players (i.e. companies that enable people to make voice calls and send messages over the internet); and
- a harmonised set of rules on net neutrality in order to prohibit discriminatory blocking and throttling of network traffic - only certain content providers (so-called specialised services which rely on higher network performance) will, under certain circumstances, be able to agree deals with internet providers to assure a certain quality of service and thus obtain premium network access. Currently, there is a mixed bag of domestic net neutrality regulation in the EU. Member state approaches range from strict rules on net neutrality (e.g. the Netherlands) to compromise solutions (e.g. France) to no regulation on net neutrality at all (e.g. Germany). The UK regulator, Ofcom, pursues a self-regulatory approach and recognises that innovative internet-based services may require priority network access.
- The Commission recently released the “Investment Plan for Europe”, a package of measures to unlock public and private investments of at least EUR 315 billion over the next three years (2015-2017) with a strong focus on digital infrastructures, notably broadband.
What should I be thinking about now?
Telecoms regulatory framework
Would Ofcom have more leverage when it comes to access and fee regulation, being unconstrained by Commission veto rights?
Would the UK be able to deviate from the EU roaming regime and introduce roaming charges? Conversely, would EU member states have greater freedom to allow roaming charges to be imposed as regards UK customers?
Following a Brexit, it might be possible for content providers in the UK to negotiate a broader range of arrangements with internet providers regarding paid priority access, whereas the same business models might be under closer scrutiny in some member states, in particular once the envisaged harmonised EU rules on net neutrality take effect.
As regards the EU broadband strategy, UK firms may not have access to the new EU fund for financing high-speed broadband roll-outs or other digital networks.
The answers to many of these questions will depend on the nature of a post-Brexit UK/EU relationship.