After two years of often bitter debate, the European Parliament approved a raft of new telecom laws.
Majority support for the package was achieved after the Parliament reached a compromise with national governments earlier this month on the controversial issue of illegal file sharing over the Internet. The laws are designed to give European citizens cheaper telecom services, more privacy and a faster Internet. They pave the way for a more competitive single market in telecom services across the 27 nation European Union.
Incumbent operators will be forced to compete fairly with smaller rivals or face having their networks separated from their service divisions. An EU regulatory authority will be able to intervene if it is dissatisfied with how national regulators police their markets.
Meanwhile, operators will be obliged to allow consumers to switch to rival networks, taking their phone numbers with them, without delays. Consumers will be granted the right to be informed about data breaches involving their data.
With regard to file sharing, those suspected of illegally sharing copyright protected content over the Internet will be assured the right of defence and the assumption of innocence rather than being summarily cut off from Internet access. This last point nearly derailed the entire package a few months ago, when the Parliament tried to insert a safeguard for consumers that would have forced national authorities to seek a court order before cutting off a filesharer.
National governments, some of which are already seeking ways of clamping down on Internet piracy, refused to accept the move. A compromise was found earlier this month that leaves many opponents unsatisfied, but it did at least allow the legislative package to pass into law across the EU.
"The EU telecoms reform will bring more competition on Europe's telecoms markets," said Viviane Reding, the EU's telecoms commissioner who initiated the reforms and played a pivotal role in getting lawmakers in the European Parliament and the national governments to reach agreement. The new laws "put citizens in the center stage in telecoms regulation," she added.
The Parliamentarians who fought hardest to safeguard citizens' rights of access to the Internet said the compromise reached was the best deal they could have hoped for.
"The compromise approved by the European Parliament today is certainly not the alpha and omega of protecting Internet users' rights, but we did achieve the best possible result under the current constitutional constraints," said Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian member of Parliament from the Green Party.
Telecom providers both large and small welcomed the adoption of the telecom package. Failure to reach an agreement would have resulted in prolonged and costly legal uncertainty for them. Larry Stone, BT's president of group public and government affairs said his company "strongly supports the European Union's drive for a more consistent Single Market."
For smaller rivals in the market the key element of the new laws is the ability to threaten former incumbent operators that still control most of the telecoms networks, with functional separation of their infrastructure and services divisions.
"The challenge now is for the Commission, governments and national regulators to remove the remaining barriers to competition," said Innocenzo Genna, chairman of the European Competitive Telecommunications Association (ECTA), which represents the smaller players. "We can no longer afford to be in the slow lane of the digital economy."
ECTA said there has been no progress toward competitive broadband markets for more than two years, with incumbents continuing to dominate most markets.
"We now must take the opportunity of the new framework to re-energise our quest for competition and promote deployment of fibre networks open to competitors at a fair price so that businesses and consumers can receive high speed services from a wide variety of providers," it said in a statement.
A new pan-European telecom regulator, equipped with veto powers over its national equivalents will help ensure that all 27 countries in the EU play by the same rules. The new agency, called the body of European regulators of electronic communications (BEREC) will be able to overturn a decision by a national regulator if they believe it unfairly favors the former local monopoly. It will share this veto power with the Commission.
The new telecom laws also pave the way for the move away from analogue TV by stating how the radio frequencies made available when TV channels switch to digital should be distributed. Broadcasters were keen to keep this so-called digital dividend for themselves so they could offer interactive TV services, but lawmakers ruled that the spectrum must be shared with mobile phone operators and others providing mobile services.
"The EU legislature kept the existing opt-out regime for cookies and improved it to the benefit of Internet users. This recognises the established practice that web users set their cookie preferences in their settings managers," said IAB Europe vice president Kimon Zorbas.
Net neutrality, which sparked controversy, didn't get addressed directly in the new laws. Industry lobbying on the issue was intense with AT&T on one side calling for the freedom to charge different rates for different online service providers across its networks and Google and other Internet firms on the other demanding neutrality.
The Commission weighed in on the side of the Internet firms and managed to secure a declaration to be attached to the new laws, that while not legally binding, could be used to ensure that the next European Commission that takes office early next year will follow the line of the current team led by Commissioner Reding.
BEREC will be established in spring next year. EU member states have 18 months to transpose the new laws into their national statute books.