European Commission could overhaul planned telecom legislation

The telecom industry doesn't favor what it calls 'overly restrictive measures on net neutrality'

The new European Commission is taking a fresh look at the long-planned overhaul of EU telecom legislation, possibly making fundamental changes to legislative proposals for strict net neutrality rules -- a move that would be welcomed by operators.

In a letter sent by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice President Frans Timmermans, the other commissioners were asked whether they would change any of the planned legislation.

"You are also invited to examine all pending proposals in your area and to signal those which we should review together, for example because they have no realistic chance of being adopted in the near future, or because the degree of ambition achievable does not match the objectives sought," they said in the letter, dated Nov. 7, which was seen by the IDG News Service.

The letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Commission is currently in the middle of an update of telecom rules meant to push the sector into the Internet age and remove barriers among the EU's 28 national telecom markets.

The proposals, for instance, aim to maintain an open Internet by guaranteeing net neutrality. Other goals include better coordination of spectrum use to enable more wireless broadband, more investments in 4G and the emergence of pan-EU mobile companies with integrated networks. The new rules also aim to abolish roaming fees entirely.

The legislative package was approved by the European Parliament in April but did not get signed by the European member states by Nov. 1, when the new Commission began its term.

An annex to the letter sent to the commissioners covers "major new initiatives" for the Commission Work Program (CWP). "Deciding our first CWP is one of our immediate tasks and will be crucial to mark a change from the past," the letter said.

The letter's political guidelines for a connected Digital Single Market include legislative plans for "more ambitious telecoms reform" within the next six months. The letter also lists copyright modernization, rules for online and digital consumer purchases and efforts to boost digital skills and facilitate startups as legislative proposals for the first six months of the new Commission's tenure.

Under "major new initiatives" it lists the Digital Single Market (DSM) legislative package that is planned to be adopted in the second quarter of 2015, without providing any details about the contents of that package.

A new perspective on telecom legislation would be welcomed by industry, which would like a chance to change the proposals before a deal is sealed. The industry, for instance, is not a big fan of the proposed strict net neutrality rules.

"We think that any new regulatory measure should be pro-innovation and pro-investment. Overly restrictive measures on net neutrality, for example, would restrict telcos ability to innovate and invest in networks and services, resulting in reduced users' choice and stifling the internet ecosystem," said Alessandro Gropelli, a spokesman for the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO).

"Juncker's Commission seems very determined to foster investments in network infrastructures and strengthen Europe's digital economy. We share this view and we believe that light-touch regulation combined with policies stimulating take-up of new services will help the EU becoming a truly digital Continent," Gropelli added.

The overhaul of the telecom rules and the European digital market will be in the hands of Andrus Ansip, vice president of the Commission responsible for the Digital Single Market, and Günther Oettinger, commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

Oettinger in particular has worried critics because he made what they said were contradictory statements about net neutrality during his assessment hearing, primarily approaching the subject from an industry standpoint.

The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the letter said the Commission aims to adopt the CWP on Dec. 16 in Strasbourg.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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