EU to reform telecoms market – but net access still not a basic right

6 Nov 2009

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The European Union has set the course for a fundamental overhaul of telecoms regulation in Europe, making it more likely that incumbent networks will open their networks up to competition and give greater internet access rights to consumers.

The reforms include a range of binding directives that will help Ireland and other EU states benefit from a more fairly regulated telecoms market. Approved directives in the report include the forming of a European Telecoms Authority, which will greatly aid in the creation of a single telecoms market.

Welcome news

The news was welcomed last night by the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators (ALTO), which urged the government to transpose the reforms measures into Irish law as soon as possible after the plenary session of the European Parliament approves the reforms.

“Consumers have already seen some benefit from loose co-operation between regulators in having mobile roaming charges decreased and it is expected that a more transparent, empowered authority will aid with increasing competitiveness in all member states.

“The directives also empower national regulators with the additional tool of being able to oblige telecoms operators to separate communication networks from their service branches, as a final measure to improve competition. The measure has been a success in improving the competitive space in the UK, where broadband connections increased exponentially when its incumbent was separated in this manner," ALTO said in a statement.

The illegal file sharing issue

Responding to the issue over three strikes and you’re out if guilty of illegal file sharing, MEPs working on the issue agreed that a user’s internet access may be restricted, if necessary and proportionate, only after a fair and impartial procedure, including the user’s right to be heard.

MEPs and council representatives agreed in negotiations on Wednesday night on this, the last open issue in the telecoms package.

The two sides had already agreed in May that internet is essential for the exercise of fundamental rights, such as the right to education, freedom of expression and access to information. So MEPs insisted in Wednesday’s conciliation meeting on establishing adequate procedural safeguards for internet access, in line with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guaranteeing effective judicial protection and due process.

Restriction of internet access

The parliament agreed that restrictions on a user’s internet access may "only be imposed if they are appropriate, proportionate and necessary within a democratic society", agreed MEPs and council representatives.

Such measures may be taken only “with due respect for the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to privacy” and as a result of “a prior, fair and impartial procedure” guaranteeing “the right to be heard (…) and the right to an effective and timely judicial review”, says the compromise text on the electronic communications framework directive. “In duly substantiated cases of urgency” appropriate procedural arrangements may be made provided they are in line with the European Human Rights Convention.

In future, internet users may refer to these provisions in court proceedings against a decision of a Member State to cut off their internet access.

Agreement confirmed

The Council confirmed on 26 October an agreement reached in May between Parliament and council on the two other telecoms package laws. One is a regulation setting up a new European body, BEREC, to improve co-operation among the EU’s national telecoms regulators.

The other is a directive to strengthen consumer rights, eg, by allowing customers to have their mobile telephone number transferred within one working day when changing operators or requiring a user’s consent before “cookies” are installed on his computer.

By John Kennedy

Photo: An EU report includes the formation of a European Telecoms Authority, which will help the creation of a single telecoms market.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com