European telecoms regulation may have to change following the forthcoming review of the sector's liberalisation, but operators won't be hit immediately, according to the European Commission.
Telecom operators are worried that it is too soon to start changing the regulatory environment after liberalisation of the telecom sector at the start of 1998.
Responding to concerns expressed by mobile operators at a GSM Association seminar, European Commission director-general for telecommunications Robert Verrue said any legislative changes would not come into force until 2003 at the earliest.
"We are essentially interested to make sure that regulations are pro competitive and there is a lot of work to do on that. But there is a systematic misunderstanding. No-one is talking about changing the rules now," he said.
"If we do not start to discuss the review now we will never make proposals before the middle of next year. That means there will be no change or suppression of rules before 2003 at the earliest," he said.
Verrue said liberalisation has started against a relatively smooth background and that will contrast with the next five to seven years during when there will be substantial improvements in storage and transmission capacities.
This coupled to the convergence of telecoms, the film and TV world, and mobile will create a landscape which is "far more complex" than the last years, he said, noting that mobile and Internet growth have been the most spectacular trends in the last years.
"This creates a new background against which we have to conduct the first regulatory review of telecom services. For the underlying trends in technology and the market over the last five to seven years a safety belt was enough," he said.
"But we will probably need double air bags and side protection for the next five to seven years. The market is going to be much more competitive," he said.
Verrue identified four areas of concern in the review, due to be launched by the commission later this month and discussed by EU telecoms ministers in March.
The first area is to make sure that while telecoms rules should be limited to what is essential this would not be done at the expense of fragmentation of the European market and scope for member states to intervene more heavily, he said.
The second area is to take account of the convergence of the digital economy in which the institutional structure is organised to cope with different network infrastructures such as fixed, mobile, cable, terrestrial and satellite, he said.
"The third preoccupation is that we should look to promote competition between services and not technologies. We should make sure our regulatory approach is less and less technology-biased and more and more technology-neutral," he said.
The fourth aim is to anticipate new technology and design regulatory instruments that can be updated before they become out of date and to concentrate on "principle of competition and not the details of regulations," he said.
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