Building a connected continent
Today, Commission President Barroso made his State of the Union speech. And in it was a very important announcement about Europe's digital future: our plans to create a Connected Continent.
Soon, internet infrastructure could be supporting everything we do: from flexible business services, to smarter living environments, to better healthcare. As such it could help fix many of Europe's current challenges: boosting competitiveness, creating jobs, and supporting better public services.
Global competitors caught on to this long ago; Europe, once an ICT leader, is now lagging behind. Japan, South Korea and the USA combined have around the same population as the EU – but over 8 times more fixed fibre broadband, and almost 15 times more 4G.
The ICT sector represents some of the biggest companies in the world: and Europe needs to play its part. Europe has so much talent and capacity to use and innovate with these new tools. I've seen that that vividly in my travels, like meeting all the young web innovators at Campus Party in London last week. And I've seen some of the difference that could make to people's lives, from smart cities to eHealth.
But, without the right domestic digital environment, even once-strong European players struggle to compete; as the news about Nokia reminds us. This matters not just for the ICT sector, but for the wide and ever-growing range of sectors that depend on connectivity for their competitiveness – from transport to television. Not to mention the businesses in every sector who will come to rely on new innovations like videoconferencing, the cloud or 3D printing.
In short, without the infrastructure to compete, we aren't going anywhere – in any sector.
It is time to act; in fact it is already overdue. Current trends are unsustainable for the sector, and unsustainable for our whole economy. The single market boost can revive the European telecoms sector, and help our whole economy: but we must move fast.
That won't come about by rent-seeking in protected national markets. It won't come about from a sector that seeks to block new ideas or maintain scarcity, frustrating the economy's need for connectivity and innovation. Nor by looking backwards to yesterday's cash cows – like unfair surcharges from intra-European calls and sky-high roaming margins.
Rather, the telecoms sector needs the scale to compete globally. It needs to focus on investing, to offer plentiful, open broadband access for all. It needs to look forward to the digital opportunities of the future: new innovative services people will want to pay for.
So the Commission is putting forward targeted changes to telecoms regulations. Singe market measures that can serve consumers and grow the market.
Those measures include:
- New rules that make it easier for operators to work across borders. For example: so they can work in multiple countries – without negotiating separate bureaucracy and seeking separate formal authorisations in each one; serving people from across Europe without discrimination.
- Giving operators more consistent access to fixed internet networks in different countries. Plus new rules on spectrum mean more wireless broadband for more Europeans – and more consistency makes it easier to plan networks across countries. That will help citizens and businesses get the cross-border communications services they are crying out for – and help 4G roll out faster.
- New rules to support public WiFi – so it's even easier to stay connected when you're on the go.
- Our proposals wouldn't create a single EU regulator – even though, in a true single market, that could ultimately be the most logical solution. But I do want to ensure national regulators can coordinate more strategically – by giving the Body of European Regulators a full-time, professional chair - with a stable, 3-year term.
- Fairer charges when you call another EU country from a landline or mobile (where often today you face an unjustified surcharge);
- Better consumer rights to ensure you get the internet speed and quality you pay for – your contract will have to state clearly the speed (at peak times – not just some theoretical maximum);
- A new, more stable and certain framework to support investment in new faster broadband networks (that matters if you're among the nearly 50% of European households with no fast fixed broadband coverage).
- It's hard to claim you're bringing down barriers as long as roaming charges remain; those wouldn't exist in a true single market. So we are proposing measures to bring about the end of roaming within Europe once and for all. First, no more charges at all for receiving a call within the EU. And, second, a new deal so you can "roam like at home" at no extra cost – with measures to encourage those deals onto the market as soon as possible.
- Plus I am putting forward new safeguards to ensure access to the open internet. Today, millions of Europeans find services like Skype blocked, or their internet access degraded: my proposal will end those discriminatory practices. Extra new "specialised services" (like for IPTV, e-Health, or cloud computing) would be allowed only if they don't cause general impairment of regular Internet access.
I'm sure it is roaming and safeguarding openness that will grab most of the attention. That's understandable given how visible (and frustrating) unfair charges and blocked services are for citizens – and both are important areas for EU action. But this proposal goes much wider.
Our proposal is about growth – about ensuring strong, healthy EU telecoms players who can think European to compete globally, and support growth across our whole economy. It's about fairness – ending rip-off charges and unfair practices by telecoms operators. And it's about leadership – the ICT leadership Europe once had, and that we desperately need to recapture. New data services can support every European citizen, every sector of our economy, every innovative entrepreneur – so it's time to expand their ambition beyond borders and really seize that opportunity.
I know that many in Europe recognise this imperative; that is why EU leaders specifically asked for these proposals. I hope all EU politicians can now treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve, so we can ensure digital opportunities in a digital Europe.