EU Mulls Breaking up Vital Telecom Reform Package

The European Commission may break up a package of reforms for the telecom sector in order to salvage elements of it, after the European Parliament torpedoed the original plan for a big bang of changes Wednesday.

Parliamentarians supported everything in the package, which is designed to update the rules to suit the modern world of high-speed Internet access. All, that is, except for one: the ability of national governments to ban citizens from the Internet for illegally downloading copyright-protected music and video without first taking them to court.

The item isn't even central to the overall package, which deals mainly with issues such as how to share radio spectrum among new mobile technologies, the creation of an E.U.-wide telecom regulator, boosting healthy competition among service providers and the protecting of people's privacy online.

Nevertheless, the big bang approach required total agreement on all aspects between the Parliament and the national governments in order to get adopted. Wednesday's plenary meeting of the Parliament was the last opportunity to get such an agreement before Parliamentarians head back to their constituencies to prepare for next month's European Parliament election.

For the past two years E.U. lawmakers and the telecom industry have argued that it is vital to get the reforms adopted without delay, because existing laws dating back to 2002 are out of date and are hampering the rapid pace of change in the sector. The urgency intensified last year when Europe's economy plunged into recession. Rapid roll-out of high-speed broadband networks and greater competition in the telecom sector would help get the whole economy back on its feet, the argument went.

There is still a small chance that the package could be approved before the June elections, but it would require national governments agreeing to the Parliament's insistence that the policing of the Internet be done through the proper judicial authorities. This is unlikely because two of the biggest countries in the 27-nation block -- France and the U.K. -- are pushing for greater powers to curb the downloading of illegal content.

Next week, for example, the French senate is expected to pass a law dubbed the "three strikes and you are out" law, that would see illegal downloaders banned from the Internet after being caught three times by a government-appointed authority -- not a court.

"You can't force a national government to force its courts to act. The MEPs that voted for this amendment got carried away by fantasies that get us nowhere," said Pilar del Castillo, a right wing MEP from Spain who favored a compromise solution with the national governments that would have taken out all references to the courts.

So what to do? Accept a delay of at least six to nine months, while the new Parliament gets settled in? No one is terribly enthusiastic about that prospect, partly because there is no knowing what the political makeup of the new Parliament will be. Six to nine months could turn into 12 to 15 months if the new MEPs don't play ball.

One alternative is to try to isolate the troublesome amendment by breaking the package into its distinct legal parts, said Martin Selmayr, spokesman for the telecom commissioner, Viviane Reding.

The right of access to the Internet falls under what is called the framework directive. The new E.U.-wide telecom regulator that everyone agrees is needed is covered by a separate legal instrument called a regulation. Similarly privacy and data protection measures, which were also agreed to by all lawmakers, are covered by what has been dubbed the e-privacy directive.

"It is possible to split up the different elements," Selmayr said, pointing out that this is what happened in 2002 when lawmakers failed to agree on privacy issues. The privacy aspects were carved out from the old telecom package of legislation, allowing all the other parts to be agreed upon. The privacy issues were then settled six months later.

However, the framework directive includes two key aspects of the latest reforms: the distribution of radio spectrum that has been freed up by the move from spectrum-hungry analog TV to the more efficient digital TV -- the so-called digital dividend -- and guidelines for encouraging the roll-out of next-generation, super-fast broadband networks. These bits of the reforms promise some of the greatest economic benefits of the whole telecom package. And they can't be split away from the Internet access question, Selmayr said.

Telecom ministers from the 27 national governments are due to meet in Brussels on June 12. Until now there was nothing much slated on the agenda. But the vote in the Parliament Wednesday changed that. Now ministers will have to decide whether to accept the Parliament's terms on Internet access, or else allow a much-needed tool for economic recovery to slip through their fingers.

"The ball is in the national governments' court now," Reding said. No doubt she will be courtside between now and then, urging the telecom ministers on.

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