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New standards for networking challenge regulators & digital rights

On 17 October, the European body of telecommunications regulators (BEREC) organised a stakeholder meeting in Brussels, inviting industry, consumers, regulators and citizens’ rights groups to reflect on the BEREC Work Programme 2019.

By ARTICLE 19 (guest author) · October 24, 2018

Notwithstanding BEREC’s strong commitment to exploring new ways to boost consumer empowerment, the lack of consumer and human rights voices present in the room did not go unnoticed. BEREC received criticisms for having prepared public consultations in haste, and many stakeholders called for better transparency. They also received praise for their handling of net neutrality and roaming to date.

Industry voices were predictably split along known lines. Vertically integrated operators, entities that exercise commercial control over both the physical network and service provision to consumers through that physical network, continue to feel threatened by web services and vertically separated services, while challengers and new entrants continue to prioritise competition as the vehicle to drive investment. Predictably, the recent advances of 5G cellular technologies bring the question of market access to the foreground of BEREC concerns.

Some stakeholders present at the forum expressed strong enthusiasm for a European industrial policy view of 5G and called for roll-out and investment. BEREC itself appears cognisant of the fact that they do not settle industrial policy for the EU but implement legislation decided by the legislators. The new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) is clear: there will be a continued focus on effective competition, with a more harmonised approach across the EU area.

While in fixed networks vertical separation is increasingly looking like to the road to more investment and better infrastructure, vertical integration is still present in mobile networks. 5G standards development, in fact, appears to build vertical integration into the technical architecture of the network. It will be imperative for BEREC to work not only on the aspects of effective competition that arise from economic reports and market surveys, but also to engage with the way in which technical designs shape the market. As operators attempt to innovate themselves out of competition, forces for public good should instead consider which innovation may enable better competition. The open standards and architecture of the internet itself is a testament to the ability of technical standards to enable competition, innovation, and access.

Places to start looking for a more competition-friendly technical architecture include the mechanisms for authenticating to the network. A network operator should not have a monopoly on granting access to competitors or consumers by technical design – having separable technical layers to the network ensures long-term sustainability. Mechanisms for hand-over between network operators must also combine security and interoperability: the internet shows that these problems can be solved, but it requires determination and will. For a software-defined network, it will be crucial to understand where the power to configure the characteristics of the network reside. We may ask what are the appropriate defaults in a network operators market that is dominated by a few actors.

6th BEREC Stakeholder Forum

Draft BEREC Work Programme 2019

Proposed Directive establishing the European Electronic Communications Code (14.09.2016)

Public consultation on draft BEREC WP 2019

(Contribution by Amelia Andersdotter and Maria Luisa Stasi, EDRi member Article 19)