Kroes pushes through plans for EU single market

The European Commission's digital chief, Neelie Kroes, has finally pushed through her plans for a single market for telecoms, after the measures were launched on Wednesday by Commission President José Manuel Barroso in his 2013 State of the Union speech, the "Connected Continent."

Neelie Kroes

The main elements of the reform package are a single "authorisation" for the European Union's 28 member states to simplify and reduce regulation, the gradual elimination of roaming charges, the adoption of net neutrality, new consumer rights across Europe, the coordinated assignment of spectrum across the EU and more certainty for investors in order to increase investment levels. Also included are plans to have standardised wholesale products for fixed-line operators.

A single regulator is not included in the proposals, and nor are there plans for pan-European spectrum licences. All of the provisions will likely face a difficult path ahead in the European Parliament, which must turn the proposals into law.

"I'd like to announce that, today, we will formally adopt a proposal that gives a push towards a single market for telecoms," Barroso said in his speech. "Citizens know that Europe has dramatically brought down their costs for roaming. Our proposal will strengthen guarantees and lower prices for consumers, and present new opportunities for companies."

In a press release issued later by the European Commission, Kroes said the legislation proposed on Wednesday is "great news" for the future of mobile and Internet in Europe. "The European Commission says no to roaming premiums, yes to net neutrality, yes to investment, yes to new jobs," she confirmed.

On the roaming proposal that has been making most of the headlines in recent months, the Commission said incoming call charges while travelling in the EU would be banned starting July 1, 2014. Operators will have the choice of offering plans that apply everywhere in the EU ("roam like at home") or allowing their customers to "decouple" and opt for a separate roaming provider with cheaper rates.

"This builds on the 2012 Roaming Regulation which subjects operators to wholesale price cuts of 67 per cent for data in July 2014," the release added.

Operators have balked at the roaming changes, especially creation of separate plans, but Kroes seemed unperturbed. "We can't afford to wait," she told reporters before the announcement, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We're not here to do favors, I'm too old for that."

On net neutrality, it seems that Kroes has fended off a late challenge to the provision to allow telecoms operators to charge Internet companies for prioritising traffic on networks.

However, the net neutrality proposals have already brought criticism from advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, which says the proposals include "contains dangerous fake net neutrality proposals" that ban blocking and throttling of Internet communications on one hand but make it "completely meaningless by explicitly allowing undue commercial discrimination through prioritization" on the other.

"The Parliament must replace this section of the text by provisions that guarantee the enforcement of a true and unconditional net neutrality in order to defend the general interest," said Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson of La Quadrature du Net.

Meanwhile, Kroes tweeted on Wednesday: "Very pleased to say we've succeeded in pushing forward major telecoms changes in #EU. Details 2 follow tonight+tomorrow #ConnectedContinent"

Kroes will hold a press conference on the package of proposals at 12.30 CET on Thursday, when more details will be revealed.

For more:
- see this speech given by José Manuel Durão Barroso
- see this European Commission release
- see this Reuters article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this NYT article

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