The Council today granted the Estonian presidency a general mandate to begin negotiations with the European Parliament on new rules for the electronic communications sector that will prepare Europe for the era of 5G by promoting investment, competition, consumer protection and the development of new services. Boosting investment is necessary to ensure that the EU is able to meet the ever-growing demand for gigabit connectivity, which is a vital part of the digital revolution.
Our future is digital, and these rules are key to creating a gigabit society throughout the EU,” said Urve Palo, Estonia’s Minister for Entrepreneurship and Information Technology. “I am pleased that the Estonian presidency has obtained this first mandate earlier than we expected. We will now make every effort to achieve solid progress in talks with the Parliament by the end of the year. The unanimous support for our proposal shows the Council’s commitment to deliver on the digital single market.”
The minister added that work on this file reflects the importance the Estonian presidency attaches to connectivity and 5G. “In July, my colleagues and I signed the declaration on the adoption of 5G. At the Tallinn Digital Summit, European leaders also discussed how to promote 5G and connectivity. These steps will be reflected in the meetings of the European Council and the Telecoms Council later this month.”
The proposed rules, the European Electronic Communications Code, cover a wide range of areas, from consumer rights to operators’ access to networks and member states’ cooperation on spectrum management. The overhaul is intended to reflect changes in the market since the introduction of the current rules in 2009, and will provide a future-proof framework for a swift and extensive roll-out of 5G and other new generation technologies. These new technologies will facilitate the introduction and expansion of innovative digital services such as connected and autonomous cars, smart cities and smart energy grids.
The Council mandate widens the scope of electronic communications services to take account of the growing importance of services provided over the internet (also known as ‘over-the-top services’, or ‘OTT’), which includes VoIP, messaging apps and email. This is a major change compared to the current rules, which cover only traditional services that are linked to a specific number, such as text messages and landline and mobile calls. Certain characteristics of the service, such as whether the user pays for the service, will determine which rules will apply. In addition, the mandate includes a review mechanism to ensure that end-user rights remain up to date in view of the quick pace of change in business models and consumer behaviour.
The mandate provides for increased cooperation among member states to make radio spectrum available to operators in a timely and predictable manner. However, the Council text acknowledges that the best way to use spectrum varies across the EU, for a number of reasons, including physical geography, population distribution, market conditions and borders with non-EU countries. It also takes into account the fact that member states may need flexibility to react to technological and market changes in their management of spectrum.
The Council’s position updates current rules on operators’ access to networks to encourage competition and make it easier for companies to invest in new infrastructure, including in more remote areas. The mandate allows authorities to reduce the level of regulation to some extent where markets are competitive but introduces safeguards where these are necessary to ensure that the effective regulation of the market is not undermined.
The Council retains the core regulatory approach based on ‘significant market power’ (SMP), which has proved its value over the years in opening up markets to new entrants. However, as market players are becoming increasingly complex, SMP regulation alone is not enough to ensure competition in all cases. SMP rules will therefore be complemented with symmetric regulation of all providers of electronic communications networks in certain situations. In addition, the Council mandate introduces some additional tools to allow national regulatory authorities to address issues that may arise in certain market circumstances, such as duopolistic situations.
The mandate was granted by member states’ ambassadors at a meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper I).
An initial exploratory ‘trilogue’ meeting with the European Parliament is expected to take place by the end of October, if the Parliament confirms at its next plenary session that this is possible.