EU telecom ministers expected to veto reforms

Telecommunication ministers from Europe are likely to veto the package of reforms passed by the European Parliament on Wednesday.

Telecommunication ministers from Europe are likely to veto the package of reforms passed by the European Parliament on Wednesday.

But if they do not, the reforms, which could give greater protection to citizens' online rights, could be implemented by the end of 2010, communications commissioner Viviane Reding said yesterday.

Ministers want to give network operators and access providers the right to manage traffic at their own discretion; MEPs say changes to the quality of service customers receive should be done only in response to a court order.

A spokesman for the European Parliament said the ministers, who meet on 12 June, have up to four months to send their official revised legal text back to parliament. "It is highly unlikely that the council will accept the European Parliament's position," the spokesman said.

Once the European Parliament has received the telecom ministers' position, it has up to two months to convene a conciliation committee of MEPs to negotiate with ministers on its behalf. The conciliation could take another two months.

"If parliament and council reach an agreement in conciliation, parliament will have to hold its third (and last) reading within six to eight weeks," the spokesman said.

The final decision might only be taken in February next year.

The spokesman said all three legislative documents are interlinked. As long one (the Trauttman report) is not adopted, the whole package is not agreed.

If passed the reforms will change the telecommunications environment in the following ways:

1. A right of European consumers to change, in one working day, fixed or mobile operator while keeping their old phone number. Currently to change a number in the EU takes 8.5 days for a mobile number and 7.5 days for a fixed number on average, and some customers wait two to three weeks.

2. Access providers will have to spell out clearly and unambiguously what citizens sign up for, and, in particular, what they can or cannot do with those communications services. Consumer contracts must specify, among other things

• Minimum service quality levels

• Compensation and refunds if these levels are not met

• Subscriber's options to be listed in telephone directories and

• Clear information on the qualifying criteria for promotional offers.

3. A new European telecoms authority called BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) will help ensure fair competition and more consistency of regulation on the telecoms markets. BEREC decisions will usually be taken by majority of the heads of the 27 national regulatory authorities. BEREC decisions will be prepared by an independent office with expert staff.

4. New EU telecoms rules will give the commission the power to oversee and force the withdrawal of national regulators' decisions to avoid inconsistent regulation that distorts competition in the single telecoms market. The commission will also be able to make binding decisions on national regulators.

5. National telecoms regulators will have more political independence from their national governments, including protection against arbitrary dismissal of national regulators.

6. National telecoms regulators will be able to force telecoms operators to separate communication networks from their service branches to sharpen competition in markets while maintaining incentives for investment in new networks. In the UK functional separation in January 2006 triggered a surge in broadband connections from 100,000 unbundled lines in December 2005 to 5.5 million three years later.

7. Reallocation of radio spectrum following the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting will help overcome the "digital divide" between urban and rural areas. Only 70% of the population in rural areas of the EU have access to a broadband network connection. The reform will allow wireless broadband services in regions where putting in optical fibre is too costly.

8. The new GSM Directive will allow any service, starting with 3G and extending to new technologies, to operate in the GSM band which is currently reserved exclusively for GSM services. This will lead to industry savings estimated at €1.6bn in capital costs for a single Europe-wide network, and enable faster roll-out of full 3G coverage. This will boost take-up of 3G in the EU from over 90 million in December 2008. 3G penetration rates are currently the highest in Italy, Austria, Sweden and the UK where they exceed 20% of the total subscribers.

9. The new rules bring legal certainty for investment in next generation access (NGA) networks based on new optical fibre and wireless network technologies. The commission started the public consultation on NGA networks in September 2008 and will start a second soon.

The rules governing sharing network elements such as ducts or in-building wiring, between operators are also updated. Besides improving competition and services for businesses and consumers, this will also help lower the overall financial costs for operators of deploying NGA networks.

10. National telecoms authorities will have the powers to set minimum quality levels for network transmission services so as to promote "net neutrality" and "net freedoms". European consumers will have a greater choice of competing broadband service providers, who are expected to use traffic management tools to differentiate their product by quality of service and price or to restrict some uses of the bandwidth, such as video, voice and peer to peer file-sharing.

11. The new telecoms rules recognise explicitly that internet access is part of fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information. The rules therefore provide that any measures taken regarding access to or use of services and applications through electronic communications networks must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and education, as well as due process. The new rules also clarify that the final word on this important matter of internet access must be with a judicial authority. The Council of Telecoms Ministers so far has been against this.

12. Privacy is a priority of the new telecoms rules. Names, email addresses and bank account information of the customers of telecoms and internet service providers, and especially the data about every phone call and internet session, need to be kept safe. The new rules introduce mandatory notifications for personal data breaches. This means that communications providers will be obliged to inform the authorities and their customers about security breaches that affect their personal data.

Users will have to opt-in to receive cookies. (Cookies are small programs that allow the cookie owner to track the user through cyberspace). They will also have more control over what happens to their personal data, and they will find it easier to exercise control over their personal information in practice. Internet service providers will have the right to sue spammers.

13. All communications services providers will have to provide better access to emergency services such as the 112 number. They will also have to improve access for those with disabilities.

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