It has been more than 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" (for further details please see "International roaming regulation: roaming into a (dis)connected continent?"). However, a number of factors – including European Commission elections and a revisiting of priorities of the new team in charge – mean that the proposals have been slow in moving forward. Only in December 2014, when the European Commission published its work programme for media and telecoms, was it confirmed that the connected continent proposals were still a key priority, albeit now part of a wider debate on the creation of a digital single market.

May 6 2015 marked a key milestone for the plans for telecoms reform, with Mr Ansip, European commissioner for the digital single market, formally unveiling details of the 16 steps towards the digital single market.(1) The digital single market focuses on making the existing fragmented EU market "fit for the digital age" by moving from 28 national markets to a single market. The aims of the strategy are to:

  • provide better access to digital goods and services across Europe for consumers and businesses;
  • create the right conditions and a level playing field to enable digital networks and innovative services to flourish; and
  • maximise the growth potential of the digital economy.

Of the 16 steps published, only one is dedicated to telecoms. It repeats the 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 European Commission expressly identified five challenges to be addressed in the telecoms market in order to make it "fit for purpose":

  • Regulatory fragmentation – the European Commission will tackle regulatory fragmentation to allow economies of scale for network operators, service providers and consumers, while ensuring equivalent access to essential networks.
  • More harmonisation of spectrum – while acknowledging that revenues from spectrum sales should stay in domestic markets, a more harmonised regime to manage radio spectrum is necessary, particularly given the importance of spectrum for connectivity.
  • Sufficient network investment – there need to be better ways and rules to incentivise market players to invest in high-speed broadband networks, with the aim of ensuring that end users benefit from competitive, affordable and high-quality connectivity. The idea of state funding, particularly in rural areas, has also been mooted as a potential solution.
  • Consistency of governance – regulatory consistency needs to be improved, particularly on spectrum management, across member states in order to deliver convergent market outcomes, while taking account of different local and national conditions.
  • Create and maintain a level playing field – the European Commission will look into the growing importance of online players that provide similar or equivalent services to traditional communication services.

The European Commission dubs the proposals "ambitious", but many disagree with this assessment. The omission of concrete proposals on roaming and net neutrality – which have been left to the European Parliament and the EU Council to finalise – certainly does not support the idea of radical reform. However, whether such reform is needed is almost a secondary debate.

The telecoms reforms are on the digital single market roadmap for 2016.(2) In reality, there will likely be several more years of debate and discussion, with implementation of true reform unlikely before 2019.

Ansip wants the strategy that he has outlined 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; now it seems that the finishing line is even further away than before.

For further information on this topic please contact Purvi Parekh at Olswang LLP by telephone (+44 20 7067 3000) or email (purvi.parekh@olswang.com). The Olswang website can be accessed at www.olswang.com.

Endnotes

(1) Available at ec.europa.eu/priorities/digital-single-market/docs/dsm-communication_en.pdf.

(2) Available at ec.europa.eu/priorities/digital-single-market/docs/roadmap_en.pdf.

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