A net neutrality law put the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications in the spotlight this year. A review of the EU's telecoms rules put the regulator at the center of a fight for the networks that will shape Europe's digital space. The European Commission wants telecoms to meet Brussels' grand ambition to roll out 5G and connected cars across Europe in coming years.
BEREC's take on it all is that cooler, national-level, heads will prevail. They counter-balance the Commission's Brussels-driven vision of a connected continent with an approach that is decentralized, flexible and driven by national markets first and foremost.
POLITICO spoke to Sébastien Soriano, president of the French telecoms regulator and incoming chairman of BEREC, and Wilhelm Eschweiler, vice president of the German regulator and outgoing chairman, about it all.
What are your plans for next year?
Soriano: One of the key points of next year's program is the review [of the regulatory framework for electronic communications, or telecoms review]. It's the big thing on the table.
The second big issue will be net neutrality. We had this very important regulation and we managed to issue these guidelines [last August]. At the technical level it is recognized as a very clear and proper document. The question now is how to implement it. It's a reality test - we will see how it works.
At the end of the year, in December, we will be in a position to look at all that's been done all over Europe, especially on "zero-rating" but also on other issues. [Zero-rating includes offerings by telecoms for users to download or stream specific services like Facebook or Spotify without it affecting their data plans.]
Another important issue will be everything dealing with mobile. We are coming from a world where mobile was an additional connectivity thing and now it is the main one. So it's normal that BEREC is involved in this subject, even if today the competences of the national regulatory authorities are limited.
We decided to strengthen our work on mobile. We have an expert group that only deals with roaming issues. Next year it will be transformed into a mobile and roaming group. We will deal with monitoring the mobile network coverage [to evaluate which areas in Europe are under-covered].
Today, we have possibly 28 different views on how to measure mobile coverage. The only guys that are able to have a European map of mobile coverage are Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Vodafone and Telefonica - not the regulators.
On net neutrality, even after the guidelines, we've seen debates that show providers disputing which "zero-rating" services are allowed and which aren't.
Eschweiler: BEREC has delivered on that issue. It is a very complex issue and what is on the table is very balanced and pragmatic. We have chosen a spirit of compromise that allows some flexibility for national regulatory authorities (NRAs). It is important that each NRA can take into account the national circumstances, like economies of scale and national market conditions.
BEREC will act a little bit as a watchdog on how these guidelines will work in practice. Then we'll analyze if there is room for improvement.
Soriano: Sometimes these net neutrality rules are put on the table as too much of a theoretical thing. At times we have to be a little more concrete about what really are the market players, what are the offers [like premium fast-speed connections or favored services] - to look very concretely at this.
What is your assessment of the Commission's proposed plans on the telecoms review?
Eschweiler: We adopted an opinion on this recently. There are a lot of positive aspects inside the package of the Commission. We welcome the objectives around high-speed connectivity and ultra-fast broadband … But we think that there should be a broader toolbox for the national regulators to take more into account the national circumstances. We think we need greater flexibility for the national regulators.
On the question of regulation there are interesting models the Commission has proposed. These models work, for instance in Portugal, in Spain, some in France. The question is if those models would work all over Europe.
The Commission has set very ambitious terms for the digital single market. Are telecoms up for the deadlines the Commission has in mind?
Eschweiler: It's always positive from a political point of view to have ambitious goals. [He pauses and smiles.]
5G is important for Europe. There is a race between Europe, the U.S., Korea, at the end of the day we even have to take China into account. If you look at the U.S., they have been a little bit in the front, especially on the over-the-top services [that offer communication over the internet, like Skype or online messaging apps]. This could be a chance for Europe to have a 5G strike back.
Soriano: The higher the political ambition, the more pragmatic we all have to be regarding the solution to implement it. In Brussels, sometimes we could have the impression that words are more important than reality. At the end of the day, it's connectivity, it's jobs, it's innovation in Europe. So let's be concrete and go in the right direction.
If European industry really wants to be cutting-edge and ambitious on 5G, they have to go forward and invest. To fight. To go into the research and development department and put the money on the table. To invest themselves in the international standardization discussions.
That's where the real fight is. It is a business battle, it is not a legal question.