Extra powers on the way for ComReg

11 Jan 2006

Extra powers such as the ability to fine telecom operators up to 10pc of their turnover may be granted to the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) this year if legislation currently being evaluated by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Siliconrepublic.com has learned that a limited two-week public consultation is currently under way at the Department of Communications looking at the new Electronic Communications (Miscellaneous Provisions Bill), which will give ComReg powers originally tabled back in 2002 to investigate overcharging and enforce regulatory obligations by threatening to fine companies 10pc of turnover. At present ComReg can only fine errant operators €3,000.

The Bill also proposes to pass the responsibility for the regulation of the function of the IE Doman Registry, which manages the .ie domain name from the Department of Communications into the hands of ComReg.

The draft Bill also provides for the setting up of an emergency call-answering facility to replace the serviced currently provided by Eircom. It is understood that the new service will be operated by a private entity and paid for collectively by the telecoms industry.

Originally ComReg was meant to be granted powers in 2002 to fine operators that failed to follow directives or breached the terms of their licences up to 10pc of their annual turnover, instead of the mere €3,000 fine that currently exists.
On the list of bills on the Department of Taoiseach’s website expected to be approved by the Government in 2006, the Electronic Communications (Miscellaneous Provisions Bill) has been described as follows: “To provide access to broadcasting networks and delivery of content services to all end users at retail level, to provide for the creation of indictable offences, for breaches of enforcement measures imposed by the Commission for Communications Regulation and the consolidation of offences currently provided for in statutory instruments 305 to 308 of 2003 made under the European Communities Act, to provide for stronger anti-spam penalties, to provide for the registration of the use of prepaid mobile phones and to provide for the regulation of the IEDR.”

The proposed Bill has yet to pass through the Houses of the Oireachtas for debate by TDs and Senators but no date has been scheduled for these debates.

Industry interest groups such as ALTO, which represents various independent licensed telecoms firms, and IrelandOffline, a broadband lobby group, have expressed confidence that the long awaited powers will be granted to ComReg this year.

However, Damien Mulley, a spokesman for IrelandOffline, said he was concerned as to whether if granted such powers would ComReg make sufficient use of them. “While the existing fines are paltry, I don’t believe that they [ComReg] have ever fined a telecoms company anyway with their existing powers. They really need a change of attitude and be a lot more aggressive towards telecoms companies. They don’t have a history of being aggressive enough with companies in breach of regulations.

“The encouraging thing is that under the new bill they will be given a lot more investigatory powers to tackle such things as billing issues.

“Our worry is that ComReg will get teeth but the attitude isn’t there. Our worry is that they’ll be given the powers of a Rottweiller but will emerge as just a poodle with big teeth,” Mulley said.

Tom Hickey, chairman of ALTO, expressed concerns that the current public consultation is far from public as the Department of Communications didn’t announce the consultation was taking place. “It is clear that they are only at the early stages of preparing the legislation and it will have to pass three or four stages in each house. The public will have to express their views through TDs or senators. Whether or not ComReg have used its powers in the past, the reality is it needs to have the right powers to take action.

“It’s good that ComReg’s powers may be strengthened – we have fought for that. But the question in my mind is do they go far enough? In the UK the Companies Act and Enterprise Act in the UK led to the major regulatory deal between Ofcom and BT because Ofcom could have had the powers to break up BT. Instead they sat down and worked things out, that’s what the Irish communications market needs,” Hickey said.

By John Kennedy