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GSMA, ETNO and Cable Europe urge EU Telecoms Council to wake up

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Heavyweight lobbying is continuing to the last minute as the EU Telecoms Council prepares to meet to set out the agenda for Europe’s digital future.

Despite assurances from the Council that some of the key issues will be addressed, you have to wonder whether any positive steps forward will actually be made. Bureaucrats are seemingly always fans of the status quo, which is perhaps the source of concern. The GSMA, ETNO and Cable Europe have all congratulated the Council on the proposed agenda, but hedged the statements with warnings about half-baked plans, a speciality of Brussels.

In all fairness, the agenda is quite comprehensive, addressing all the issues which you would expect. The role of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication (BEREC) will be discussed, as well as an update for ePrivacy rules, a draft regulation on the free flow of non-personal data throughout Europe, the 5G spectrum roadmap and directive on the European Electronic Communications Code.

“With Europe gearing up to deliver the Gigabit Society to its citizens, it is important that regulatory actions lead to a major boost of network investment and create more space for innovation,” ETNO has written. “Increased regulatory pressure and outdated approaches to digital innovation would harm 5G, fibre deployment and consumer choice.”

In other words, carry on doing what you are doing, and the whole idea of digital Europe will fall apart.

“Innovation and network upgrades are the lifeblood of the cable sector,” Matthias Kurth, Executive Chairman of Cable Europe. “Daily we deliver the necessary ingredients to build the gigabit society and offer consumers and businesses quality services. Competition in the sector, coming from traditional as well as over-the-top players, is increasingly fierce and we will rise to this challenge in the full expectation that rules governing competition in our sector are predictable, fair and proportionate. We look to the European Institutions to deliver on that promise.”

In other words, rules need to change to encourage investment not disincentivise it.

“Europe has an opportunity to re-establish itself as a global technology leader as we move toward the 5G era, but this can only happen if policymakers move quickly and boldly to make the necessary regulatory reforms to boost the region’s competitiveness on the global stage and bring innovative services to Europe’s citizens,” said Afke Schaart, VP of Europe at the GSMA. “A forward-looking regulatory environment designed to encourage long-term investment and innovation in Europe’s digital infrastructure is essential to maintaining a vibrant European mobile ecosystem and delivering the European Commission’s vision for a ‘Gigabit Society’.”

In other words, the rules are too focused on the short-term now and need to change.

The concern right now is heavy handed regulation, which is stagnating investments as telcos get wrapped up in red-tape, and that licenses are too short, not granting telcos suitable security to invest to the full potential. The message is pretty clear from the telcos and its lobbyists who are making all the noises; take a lighter approach to regulation and allow us to deliver on the digital dream.

While there are reasons to be optimistic over the future of Europe in the digital economy, there are also some very genuine reasons to be a little bit worried as well. Let’s look at the BEREC discussion as an example.

BEREC is a forum of national telecommunications regulators, while the BEREC Office is a small EU agency, which has a similar mandate. The European Commission has suggested merging the BEREC Office and BEREC into one single EU agency, which logically speaking would reduce bureaucratic busyness and complications. This makes sense, but the member states want to keep the status quo because it works.

“Your rapporteur believes that institutional upheaval should be avoided except when absolutely necessary” said Evžen Tošenovský, a eurosceptical Czech MEP, in a report which was released in October. The report was supported by 45 other members of the European Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee, rejected by three, while the remaining 12 abstained (you can’t expect them to rush back from lunch of course).

This is part of the problem with the bureaucrats who are deciding the fate of Europe’s digital ambitions; they will stick with an idea because it is working. That is not to say it is working well, or could work better, but simply because it is working the status quo should be maintained.

In the BEREC discussion, most would say it is clear a single office, with a combined mandate would reduce regulatory red-tape and pave a clearer road to the finish line, but this is not the view of the politicians. It works, irrelevant as to how slowly, so why change it?

Europe’s digital ambitions will of course not end should the boresome bureaucrats make the wrong decision, but you can see why the GSMA, ETNO and Cable Europe are getting a bit nervous.

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