August 15, 2022

Fortified European Telecommunications Regulator Has Potential to Wield Real Power

THE HAGUE — A little more than a month ago, the European Union got a newly empowered telecommunications regulatory agency with the potential to exercise real clout. Not that many seem to have noticed.

On May 25 that agency, made up of telecommunications regulators from each country in the 27-nation bloc, received the power to police its members and press recalcitrant colleagues to follow European law or risk having national decisions overturned.

But so far the agency, called the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, or Berec, has had little opportunity to flex its new muscles. No test cases have been brought before it, and none are in sight.

And that is no accident. Before May 25, the same regulators who sit on its board swamped the European Commission with decisions for review, some favoring former monopolies, to avoid Berec’s scrutiny.

“The commission was flooded with national market regulations,” said Chris Fonteijn, Berec’s elected chairman and the chairman of the Dutch telecommunications regulator, OPTA. “Everyone has been so mindful as to lodge and notify their decisions just prior to 25 May.”

Since that date, Europe’s revitalized telecommunications regulator has enjoyed, theoretically at least, the ability to wield greater influence in national markets. But the big question, experts say, is whether the body will be paralyzed by political self-interest or emerge as a forceful, independent voice that brings into being a harmonized single telecommunications market.

Skeptics are not hard to find.

“If you believe in pan-European regulation, this is a poor second choice to having a strong, single E.U. telecom regulator,” said John Delaney, an analyst in London for IDC, an industry research firm. “You have that inherent tension between the agendas of the national regulators and those of Europe, and a high hurdle for taking mandatory action.”

But others express greater optimism. Fabio Colasanti, who was the top civil administrator of the European Commission’s telecommunications arm from 2002 through March 2010, said Mr. Fonteijn’s prodding and the urgent need to develop a common European approach would lead to better oversight.

“I am confident that further progress will take place,” said Mr. Colasanti, who is president of an industry research body, the International Institute of Communications, based in London. “With the necessity to take a position on cases where the commission has doubts on the proposed remedies, the interaction among regulators will become more intense.”

Differing national agendas, and differing interpretations of E.U. rules, have done much to ensure that the European Union’s single market in telecommunications, despite its nominal unity, remains a patchwork of fragmented markets separated by a system of roaming charges that discourages more aggressive cross-border competition.

The wish to break that parochial impasse, and unlock the potential of the Union’s single market, is the reason European lawmakers created Berec in 2009, said Mr. Fonteijn, an affable, 56-year-old lawyer who grew up in The Hague.

Since 2005, he has overseen one of the most competitive national telecommunications markets in Europe, with three telecommunications and two cable TV operators selling broadband Internet and phone service.

Berec’s reinforced powers, Mr. Fonteijn said, will make it harder for individual countries to flout E.U. law.

“People understand that it is no longer a matter of choice to be completely doing their own thing,” he said during an interview in his office off the central plein, or square, that is home to the seat of the Dutch government.

“There is simply a need and a necessity to come to a decision jointly,” he added. “I really believe that the vast majority of members simply understands that there is no future in anything else.”

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