The regulatory framework for telecoms networks and services in the UK is primarily established under the Communications Act 2003. This piece of primary legislation gives effect to a number of EU Directives originally adopted to establish a framework for the regulation of communications-related activities across Europe. In the media sector, regulation of television services also derives, in part, from applicable European law, in particular from the Audiovisual Media Services Directive which was implemented into law in the UK by the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996 and the Communications Act 2003.
In the event of an exit from the EU, these primary pieces of legislation would likely remain in force at least for the short-term, thus retaining the status quo. In such highly regulated and complex sectors, this would certainly be preferable to repealing the legislation all at once, which would lead to huge regulatory uncertainty. However, the UK Government would have the scope to repeal or amend these laws over time without being limited by the requirements of the European Directives, subject to any other international commitments.
The telecoms sector is also subject to directly applicable EU Regulations in a couple of key areas, being roaming and net neutrality. The 2015 Roaming and Open Internet Regulation codified the principle of net neutrality (subject to reasonable traffic management) and will abolish roaming charges from June 2017. In the event of the UK exit from Europe, the 2015 Regulation would fall away. In relation to roaming, this could leave UK consumers travelling to Europe subject to higher roaming charges as the regime would be dependent upon individual roaming agreements negotiated between mobile operators, rather than regulation. With respect to net neutrality, a regulatory gap would be created and the UK Government would need to consider whether or not it wished to plug this gap with new regulation.
At a time when regulation is moving towards greater harmonisation at the European level, with proposals such as the Digital Single Market seeking to remove any obstacles to a single European digital market, any such change at a UK level would lead to uncertainty for operators as to how they will be regulated across Europe. This in turn could have a big impact on consumers at the retail level.
In the media sector, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive also enshrined the so-called country of origin principle whereby, as long as broadcasters are licensed and regulated in one Member State, they may freely transmit into other Member States without the need for additional licences or compliance with additional regulation. In the event of a UK exit from the EU, broadcasters would lose the benefit of this principle, although the Government would still be bound by its other international commitments, such as the Convention on Transfrontier Television. This could mean that UK-licensed broadcasters may no longer be guaranteed freedom of retransmission in other Member States and may be required to comply with additional regulation in those Member States.