Yesterday's meeting of EU telecoms ministers at the European Council in Brussels produced two important agreements for the future of the sector.
As of 1 January 2000 customers will be able to keep their phone number when changing networks, and choose the carrier of each call by dialling a short prefix.
"We have had a very profitable day, and I am happy to say that we have reached common positions for both number portability and carrier pre-selection," Mady Delvaux- Stehres, Luxembourg's telecoms minister, said.
Delvaux-Stehres, who chaired the meeting, went on to say that Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain will be given an additional two years to implement the directive.
The five member states have already been allowed to postpone the 1 January 1998 deadline for liberalisation of their voice telephony markets. The extra two year grace period for number portability and carrier pre-selection will begin once they have achieved the first target.
Although the debate was relatively harmonious, there was one minor sticking point. The European Commission was hoping to limit the obligations of the directive to the incumbent telecoms companies, leaving the new entrants outside the legislation, a Council of Ministers spokesman said.
Following objections from a number of member states, including the UK, a compromise was reached that effectively leaves the ultimate decision as to which companies must comply with the directive in the hands of the national regulators.
Other business discussed in the meeting included a resolution to facilitate the development of the next generation of mobile telephony, the UMTS system which will replace the European-developed de facto global standard, GSM.
The ministers also agreed on a 25 million Ecu programme to help promote the so-called information society throughout the EU. The project will encourage Internet use, and will run for five years from the end of this year.
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