European Union lawmakers have finally agreed on the shape and powers of a new pan-European telecom regulator, equipped with veto powers over its national equivalents, ending months of debate that almost saw the whole project scrapped.
An informal meeting of representatives from the European Parliament, the national governments and the E.U.'s executive body, the European Commission hammered out a compromise during four days of hard negotiating that concluded Monday evening.
The new agency, called the body of European regulators of electronic communications or BEREC, will share the veto power with the Commission. BEREC and the Commission will be able to overturn a decision by a national regulator if they believe it unfairly favors the former local monopoly.
The new regulatory regime is due to come into effect next year, assuming it receives the political rubber stamp of approval as expected at a plenary session of the European Parliament in the first week of May.
Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said the Commission is confident what has been agreed informally will be adopted as law. "We have a draft deal, if not a legal one yet," he said at a press conference Tuesday.
The new regulatory body's presence is expected to speed up the development of a single, seamless telecom market across the 27 countries of the E.U., and ultimately to bring down the price of telecom services.
Countries including Germany and Spain fought bitterly against the proposal for an E.U. regulator with veto powers. Late last year they nearly succeeded in scrapping the plan.
The deal struck late Monday is a victory for the Commission, the author of the plan, although it doesn't grant it all the powers it initially asked for.
When she unveiled the plan for a pan-E.U. telecom regulator in 2005 Viviane Reding, the commissioner for telecom, said it would be a European equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
The idea was criticized and then scaled down by national governments and the European Parliament. In its final shape, BEREC will be comprised of regulators from each of the 27 countries in the E.U., and will take firm decisions on a majority basis instead of consensually up to now.
In addition to agreeing on the new regulatory regime, the lawmakers also agreed on ways to ensure that competing firms have access to next generation telecom infrastructure built by the former telecom monopolies, in return for a fee.
Under the new rules if former monopolies abuse their control of the telecom infrastructure in their country the Commission will be able to call for the structural separation of it from the firm's telecom services.
The package of reforms to telecom rules includes updates to existing rules determining what constitutes a universal communications service and a privacy law designed to protect citizen's data online.
These elements have yet to be agreed on and will be the topic of discussion at another meeting of lawmakers on Thursday.
They raise sensitive issues, such as whether banning someone from the Internet for illegally downloading music or movies should require a judge's approval. Lawmakers appear to be ready to stretch this authority to "competent legal authorities," which would make it easier to clamp down on copyright abuse over the Internet.
The other outstanding issue yet to be settled concerns net neutrality. The term was coined in the U.S. Internet firms there fear that a lack of neutrality will result in a two-speed Internet, where telecom companies prioritize some Internet traffic over others, in a way that suits their bottom lines but not necessarily the interests of users and Internet companies.
The lawmakers are moving toward a compromise that would ensure neutrality by imposing safeguards on telecom companies, while allowing them to manage their networks as they wish.
If no agreement can be reached on these remaining issues it is possible to pass the other parts of the telecom review separately, said one person close to the talks, but he added that this wasn't being planned for the time being. "There is little doubt that the package will all go through together," he said.