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By Joe Kirwin
June 6 — Plans to overhaul the electronic communications regulatory framework in the European Union, an agenda that includes deciding on net neutrality rules and eliminating roaming charges for inter-EU mobile phone calls and data downloads, face indefinite delays after a host of EU member states outlined opposition to some of the proposed changes.
The European Parliament in April approved its version of the legislation, though it contains a strict interpretation of net neutrality that telecommuncation companies as well as the European Commission oppose. Moreover, EU member states' telecommuncations ministers, meeting on June 6 in Luxembourg, are far from reaching a common position.
“There are major divisions with some EU member states going as far as expressing either doubts on the need of some aspects of the legislation or insisting more time is needed in order to deal with some issues,” an official with the European Council of Ministers, which represents the member states, told Bloomberg BNA after the meeting when a “progress report” drawn up by Greece, which holds the rotating presidency, was discussed.
The divisions among the EU member states on the “Connected Continent” legislation, which is supposed to break down national barriers and establish a true EU-wide telecommuncations market, weren't a surprise. Greece had hoped to at least adopt a baseline common position on the telecom package that would be finalized in the second half of 2014 when Italy takes over the rotating EU presidency. However, in discussions before the June 6 meeting Greece acknowledged the numerous unresolved issues.
Before the council and the parliament can negotiate the final terms for the legislation, the member states must adopt a final position. Based on work done before and during the June 6 council meeting, the issues of net neutrality and roaming fee elimination remain the most high-profile unresolved issues, but there are others, including spectrum management and restrictions on national telecom regulatory powers.
According to council officials, the member states' division on net neutrality has to do with the strict terms adopted in April by the parliament that would restrict telecom companies from adopting any traffic management policies. Those restrictions would, among other things, disallow the kind of flexible approach on the issue recently outlined by the Federal Communications Commission.
“The only consensus on the issue of net neutrality was the support for the need for a definition that will be clear and viable for the long-term,” said the council official. “For example, the definitions of Internet access service and specialized services as outlined in the European Commission proposal need to be clarified.
“While member states agree that there is a need to get the right balance between net neutrality and reasonable traffic management, they have different views on how to achieve it and therefore there is no consensus on the underlying principles.”
In advance of the meeting in Luxembourg, telecom companies and as well as the information-technology trade association Digital Europe, which includes companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc., insisted that traffic management—including offering specialized services at higher speeds—wasn't an “either/or” proposition.
“It is important that the new rules prevent discrimination, degradation or blocking of the open internet while at the same time allowing network operators to properly manage their networks and offer their customers value-added specialized services,” said Digital Europe Director General John Higgins in a statement. “This is not an either/or choice. It is possible to achieve both.”
Higgins added that it was also important that the net neutrality rules in the EU and the U.S. aren't divergent.
“We hope Europe and the U.S. adopt compatible rules on guaranteeing an open and sustainable internet,” Higgins said. “It is not practical to have very divergent approaches.”
Other provisions of the parliament-approved proposal that divide member states include harmonizing deadlines to synchronize the spectrum available for wireless broadband and establishing an EU coordination mechanism that would give the European Commission powers to authorize spectrum rights.
GSMA Europe, which represents the largest mobile phone operators in the EU, supports the commission's proposal on spectrum management and called on EU member states to drop their nationalist approach in the interest of establishing a pan-European telecom market.
“A concerted push to harmonize and coordinate aspects of spectrum policy can provide more certainty as operators plan medium to long-term network deployments,” said GSMA Europe in a statement. “This would make a significant contribution to addressing today’s fragmented and inconsistent approach across the EU.
“Broad and bold reform is needed with a focus on new capacity that is harmonized across the single market and allocated with the objective of driving long-term growth and investment,” the group said.
On the issue of eliminating roaming fees, which the commission proposed for 2015 and the parliament supported, member states are more cautious.
“There are concerns among some EU member states on how the elimination of roaming fees will impact the financial health of telecom companies and the ability to finance new high-speed networks,” said the council official.
The indecision on roaming fees among some EU member states coincides with an intensive campaign by the EU mobile telecom operators to require that a decision be put off until 2016, when the current price caps on roaming fees—the second set approved in the past six years—come up for review.
“It is important that member states challenge the rationale of changing the current roaming regulation before its review date in 2016,” GSMA Europe said.
It added that it “supports regulatory certainty and market-driven solutions for roaming and believes the impact and implications of further regulatory change at this stage should be fully assessed.”
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