Europeans are set to enjoy significant new rights under EU telecoms rules [1] (Rules) which are currently before Parliament as part of related revisions to the Communications Act 2003.

The main features of the new Rules are:

1. Easier and fairer access to telecoms services for customers

  • The right to complete a switch of service providers in one working day Currently it takes on average four days to switch mobile network operators and seven days to switch fixed line operators while keeping the same phone number. Under the Rules, customers would have the right to complete a change of service providers in one working day while keeping the same number.
  • 24 month maximum initial contract length In order to enable service users to take advantage of more attractive offers, the Rules suggest that the maximum initial duration of a contract is no longer than twenty four months and, if the customer so desires, twelve months’
  • Greater transparency of service features Under the Rules, operators must ensure that customers are informed about the precise nature of the service to which they are subscribing. In particular, operators must give comprehensive and accurate information to customers before a contract is formed about the communications services the customer is intending to purchase (e.g. minimum service quality levels).
  • Net neutrality The Rules give national telecoms authorities the power to set minimum quality levels for network transmission services so as to promote the principle of “net neutrality”, which gives internet users the ability “to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice” without restrictions by internet service providers or governments related to choice of networks or service providers.

2. Better Privacy Protection for Internet Users

  • The Rules will require operators to secure personal data (as that term is defined in the 1998 Data Protection Act) and to inform their customers and data protection authorities promptly when personal data is lost.
  • In line with recent developments in European privacy law, the Rules mandate that websites will be forced to obtain users’ consent in order to store cookies. Browser settings giving individuals more control over cookies is a possible solution to the problem.

3. More consistent regulation to promote competition and consumer choice

  • Greater independence for national telecoms regulators The Rules reinforce the independence of national regulatory authorities by outlawing political interference in their day-to-day duties and by protecting the heads of national regulators against arbitrary dismissal. In the UK this will result in the Office of Communications (OFCOM) receiving greater powers. The Rules also require Member States to ensure that national telecoms regulators have appropriate human and financial resources (including their own bespoke budget) to enable regulators to perform their functions effectively.
  • Functional Separation In essence, functional separation entails the separation of the wholesale and retail divisions of an incumbent or dominant operator, to ensure that third parties buying wholesale services from this operator can do so at the same price and service levels as the operator offers to its own retail division. Functional separation provides regulators with the ability to overcome competition problems without involving ownership separation or the creation of a separate company. Under the Rules, regulators should only consider functional separation as a last resort when it can be established that other measures have failed.
  • As of 25 May 2011, the European Commission has increased powers to oversee the details of remedies proposed by national telecoms regulators to address problems relating to, for example, the conditions of access to the network of a dominant operator or fixed or mobile termination rates.

The aim of these regulatory changes is to create a fair and competitive single EU telecoms market for customers and service providers whilst providing telecoms operators with the regulatory certainty they need to confidently operate EU-wide.

Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda said: “Citizens and businesses should take full advantage of the opportunities these Rules give them to get more competitive telecoms services I will do my utmost to help them to do so. If these rights are not made available in practice, I will take the measures necessary to fix that situation vis-à-vis Member States and telecoms operators”.

The European Commission has stated that reinforcing the single market for telecoms services is a key objective of the Digital Agenda for Europe [2] and will consider launching infringement proceedings against Member States which have not implemented the new Rules in time.