European Parliament passes telecoms reforms

After two years of wrangling, the European Parliament has formally approved the EU’s telecoms reform package, ushering in a new wave of consumer protection, and quite possibly, operator headaches.

The package, championed by Viviane Reding, EU Telecoms Commissioner, since 2007, proposes a somewhat controversial overhaul of European telecoms legislation. Prior to the parliament’s summer recess, European authorities agreed on the creation of a new European body of telecom regulators called BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications), the right to impose functional separation on carriers – splitting the network and services operations, and plans to harmonise radio spectrum usage among member states.

But the parliament was required to agree on the package as a whole and rejected a proposal that would have allowed national authorities to kick internet users offline for illegally downloading copyrighted material without intervention from a court. During the meeting in Strasbourg on Monday, a compromise was reached, reaffirming EU citizens’ right to privacy in that “national authorities cannot restrict internet access for public policy reasons unless there has been a prior, fair and impartial procedure and effective and timely judicial review.”

European consumers will also benefit from new rights, such as the right to switch fixed or mobile operator in one working day while keeping their number; the option of signing a contract which lasts no longer than 12 months and a 24 month cap on all contracts; as well as clearer information of tariff and pricing structures; and the right to be informed about data breaches from their telecoms operator.

Under the new EU rules, national telecoms authorities will also have the power to set minimum quality levels for network transmission services so as to promote “net neutrality” for European citizens – something of a bone of contention in the operator community.

The agreement paves the way for the entry into force of the EU telecoms reform in December 2009, after which member states have 18 months to implement the rules into their national telecoms laws.

“The EU telecoms reform will bring more competition on Europe’s telecoms markets, better and cheaper fixed, mobile and internet services and faster internet connections for all Europeans. Thanks to the strong support of the European Parliament today, Europe has put citizens in the centre stage in telecoms regulation”, said Reding.

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