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The future of the European online content market is its past

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Despite hopes of many, the creation of a Single Digital Market for online content is going to remain unachieved, forever or for many years at least. European citizens have seen many borders recently disappearing (for roaming, electronic commerce, travels, studying abroad for instance), but getting access to movie or online content offered abroad will continue to be a problem. Let’s see why.

At beginning of its mandate in 2014, the European Commission planned to end geoblocking as well as other practices and mechanisms preventing European citizens to get access to any digital content offered outside their European country of residence (but still in the EU), despite the persisting practices of movies studios and content providers to distribute videos and movies on a strict territorial basis. The Commission’s aim was to sustain the creation of a truly integrated single market for digital content, the development of a paneuropean content industry, as well as the elimination of consumer frustration and grey markets which are the main causes for piracy behaviors.

Accordingly, the European Commission proposed to overcome such territorial restrictions in various areas of action within the Digital Single Market strategy, particularly in the matter of geoblocking, content portability and rights clearance for instance. While content portability ended up with a solution satisfactory for users, the most sensitive matter, that is to say geoblocking for online content, was a debacle, since the final regulation was watered down with the exclusion of content online from areas for which geoblocking is forbidden (technically: “unjustified”). A similar accident is now going to happen in the matter of rights clearance, since a proposal to facilitate the clearance of rights in the online sector (by making them cross-border), laid down with the reform of the SatCab Directive, has been dramatically weakened by the competent committee of the European Parliament. As a consequence, online copyright should continue to be cleared country by country, thus reinforcing the power of rights-holders to segment the market geographically. Soon the plenary session of the Parliament will be called to decide whether to approve or reverse such a decision.

Any time and anywhere territorial restrictions are challenged, the content industry is fiercely opposing this process basing on the argument that such territorial restrictions are inherent to the production model for movies and premium content in the EU. Fact is, European movies are financed via contracts remunerated via territorial exclusivities country by country. Therefore, changing this system would shake the production model for movies and content in the EU, triggering a spectacular process with some uncertainties. Therefore, the resistance of the concerned stakeholders is understandable.

One should consider, however, whether such concerns are overestimated and whether the defense of the  status quo may be serving also interests other than welfare of the European culture and movie industry.

Firstly, it is not clear why, on the basis of the above arguments, territorial restrictions should be granted for US content that is NOT generated and produced in the EU. If territorial restrictions are aimed to protect investment in EU content, than geoblocking and other measures should not be justified for non-EU works, such as – for instance – movies from US studios. Remarkably, despite the foregoing US content production is currently distributed in the EU on a strict territorial basis, thus enjoying profits which would no be imaginable in US where geoblocking is not tolerated.

Secondly, many European movies are financed via European funds (the Media Program for instance). Such funds are aimed are supporting the European creative industry and, as a matter of principle, should be designed in a way to spread European content everywhere in the EU. By contrast, even such EU-financed works may be (and are) currently geo-blocked country by country, which is absurd. It is curious that no-one in the European Commission has never thought that EU funding should be used more coherently with the scopes of the Digital Single Market.

Third, one should investigate whether the current territorial-based system is really helping the European content industry to really grow and become stronger. European content stakeholders normally claim that the European industry is weak, needs for subsidies and any change in the territoriality principle should just open the doors to US supremacy. However, US supremacy seems already to exist despite the pro-european geographical segmentation system.  This is the evidence that this model does not work and it allows the European industry just to survive, not to grow and become stronger. While the current territoriality-based system is granting formidable profits to the US industry, the EU content industry can only arrange to live some way. No one in the EU should be happy to continue like this.

Fourth, it is clear that a great effort is necessary to shake a status quo which is familiar to everyone, while fews are ready for the uncertainties of a change. However, this is a déjà vu in the EU: any time markets have been liberalized and opened to import and exports (goods, services ecc), stakeholders interested with the status quo have been always claiming that changes will destroy the market. This never happened, however: by contrast, markets have been adapting and growing, while resources have been allocated more efficiently, with consumers satisfaction. The current commitments (i.e.: overcoming territorial exclusivity) undertaken by Paramount with DG COMP, in the pay TV case, shows that changes are possible without catastrophes. If Paramount can, why others can’t?

Finally, “cui prodest” this debate? The Single Market is not a mantra per se, what really matters is the interest of the European citizens, who can be both artists and consumers. They should be at the centre of this reform.

Content stakeholders say that they protect the interest of artists, however the matter is more complex. Artists belong to a a system which is historically shaped with a top-down approach by big studios and, therefore, even if artists are part of such organizations, one could doubt whether they really have the possibility to have their say. The Weinstein case show how difficult could be the career for first mover artists. The problem is particularly serious for young, new and innovative artists, deprived of negotiating power, while the most famous do not have interest in big changes. A clear example is shown by the collective copyright management system, which is normally organized via monopolies (de facto or de iure) depriving artists of a concrete right of choice: thus, young artists are keen to escape as soon as they found a suitable alternative. One should therefore be skeptical when big studios or traditional organizations claim to represent the interests of all artists. Artists have different interests depending on the stage of their career, but collective organizations and studios only take care of the profitable ones. The undersigned is a non-professional pianist and I know something about that.

As regards consumers, content stakeholders normally say that the content liberalization would just favor few, privileged expats citizens living in Brussels and in big international cities, or wealthy travelers. This is not correct and, by the way, the same argument could be used to challenge the European reform deleting roaming surcharges. It is true that any time borders within the UE have been opened and liberalized, the initial beneficiaries where selected categories of people: in the case of cars importation, for instance, just people interested in buying a cheaper car abroad; in the case of roaming, the people traveling more or living in borderline regions; in case of diplomas, just students studying abroad for personal reasons profited of the new system; and so on. However, in the long term liberalizations have been providing beneficial effect to everyone, not just to the initial occasional beneficiaries. In other words, the short-term practical effects of a liberalization reform may be, at beginning, not so decisive for all European people, however the resources which can be liberated in the long term may be huge. This is the way the Single Market developed until now and there is no reason to believe that things should go differently for digital.

 

 

Really, did European Parliament water down investment plans of telcos?

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The days following the deliberation of the ITRE committee on the Commission proposal for the a new Electronic Communications Code, media coverage reiterates the story that the approach taken by the MEPs would have affected investments plans of telcos (all? or which ones?). Unfortunately, this is just an artificial simplification creating intriguing titles for the readers, while not genuinely reflecting the overall and actual outcome of the ITRE decision. The misunderstanding is partially due to the fact the the European Commission presented the entire telecom package as pro-investment reform, therefore any rebuttal may be interpreted now as a position against investments; in addition,  stakeholders focalized their attention just on few provisions, while the new European Code is much more complex then single provisions; and then journalists followed this story telling.

The main provision of the Telecom Package inspiring this pro/against investment story is art. 74 about co-investment. In a few words, the Commission proposed that in case of joint investments in new very-high capacity networks (thus networks consisting entirely of fibers such as FTTH/FTTB), local regulators would be prevented from looking into the business and therefore coinvestors would escape regulation. Obviously, the provision would be relevant for incumbents which are normally regulated, while it would not matter others. This is the first firm point of this story: only potential incumbents’ plans may be potentially affected by the regulatory intervention, while for other operators life goes ahead as normal.

Are incumbents’ plans really affected by potential regulation on co-investment?  This question brings us back to the circular story about regulation vs investment and vice-versa. In the reality, the impact of regulation upon investments’ decisions of incumbents is normally overestimated. People refer of US deregulation in 2004 which would have boosted telcos to invest in fibers, but they forgot that at that time Verizon and AT&T had no other choice but investing in fibers, since broadband connection offered by competing cable operators was replacing the copper network business. The drama for US telcos was investing in fiber or die, while the regulatory regime has limited impact on their investment decisions. Fiber footprint in Europe confirms this business dynamic: in geographic areas where cable operators have been starting to provide broadband connectivity, incumbents had to react quickly with fiber investment. Conversely, in areas where cable operators were not present (mainly outside metropolitan areas), incumbents fibers’ investment have been much more prudent. Thus, competition drives investment decisions, rather than regulation.

The co-investment text approved by the Parliament, and reforming the Commission’s draft, does not prevent incumbents from gaining a regulatory dividend through co-investments, however it preserves the competences of regulators to look into the matter and to address potential anticompetitive issues. Remarkably, the original proposal of the Commission prevented regulators from doing so, then the Parliament has reinstated the latter’ powers. This happened because European MPs understood that there might be serious risks that incumbents may play with this model and arrange investments vehicles which are not genuinely opened to other coinvestors, with the sole scope to gain deregulation. Such scenarios are difficult to foresee and regulate ex-ante, therefore keeping competences of national regulators has been a sensitive decision, while incentives for investing in new fiber networks, in the form of regulatory divided, still remain. This is why the story telling whereby the Parliament would have affected future investment decisions is fundamentally wrong.

Interestingly, the European Parliament kept untouched another “pro-investment” model proposed by the European Commission, that is to say the wholesale-only operators caught by art. 77 and subject to a light regulatory regime. This is the case of operators concentrating their investments and resources into network business and then just providing high-speed connectivity to other telecom operators for their clients. Wholesale-only operators have no residential business indeed, such as Stokab in Sweden, Open Fiber in Italy, Siro in Ireland and various small operators in UK, France and Austria. Currently, no one of them is dominant in Europe.

The wholesale-only model has been frequently confused with coinvestment, however it is something really different. While the coinvestment model makes sense, in terms of actual regulatory dividend, only for incumbents which are dominant, currently regulated and therefore seeking deregulation, wholesale-only operators are in Europe still at infancy of their development and therefore possible light regulation is just a bet on the future. Such light regulatory regime is not an actual regulatory holiday (as it could have been for incumbents with the Commission’s text of the co-investment), it is rather a signal addressed to long-term investors to put their resources in new infrastructures starting from scratch, wait patiently and trust their development like for any public utility sector, with no room for playing in order to get a regulatory dividend today.

Interestingly, Berec has been conspiring against such operators, despite the fact there  no jurisprudence in Europe about anticompetitive behaviors by wholesale-only operators (unlike incumbents) which should alarm national regulators. Authorities have basically complained about losing part of their competencies, although the solution proposed by the Commission (and approved by the Parliament) allow them to recover the entire set of regulatory remedies if a dominant wholesale- only operator start to behave badly. At the end, it seems that this negative approach of Berec was mainly driven by its French constituency, that is to say French regulator Arcep, which is worried about small municipalities which invested in fibers and could escape their oversight. Just a French problem indeed.

To sum up, the approach taken by the European Parliament appears balanced and reflecting the business reality, that is to say lifting regulation only in case anticompetitive behaviors should not reasonably occur, and keeping the powers of national regulators for the rest.

Roaming is ending for users, not for operators: the potential consequences

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The roaming reform finally entering into force on June 15, 2017 is right and due, because European citizens deserve, although within the limits of simple traveling, the end of roaming surcharges which, beyond the economic burden, have been an unbearable discontinuity in the European integration process.

However, the reform is also incomplete because it eliminates roaming surcharges for users (Roaming Like At Home: RLAH) while keeping such surcharges amongst operators under the form of high wholesale roaming caps (the cost that a mobile operator must pay to a foreign network to use it and provide roaming service sto its customers). Such wholesale caps have been fixed by way of regulation at a level which is totally inconsistent with the market practice. To make an example, the starting wholesale cap for data will be 7.7 Euro for Gigabyte (6.0 euro from January 2018 up to 2.5 euro in 2022) awhile current retail tariffs are already much below and cheaper (between 1 and 2 Euro per Giga).

As a result, many mobile operators, especially small innovative and MVNOs, will have to provide RLAH services below costs. In order to recover such costs, various options may be available (which may come as unexpected surprises for consumers):

– limiting the RLAH data with the so-called fair usage clauses (for unlimited or low cost data bundles)

– asking national regulators for a derogation and continue to apply roaming surcharges;

– increasing domestic tariffs, in order to be able to replicate them abroad as RLAH;

– issuing “domestic” SIM cards without roaming ;

– quitting the market.

The above will not happen tomorrow, it will depend on market conditions and on the evolution of usage patterns. Until now European citizens were not consuming data abroad because were scared about high or uncertain roaming tariffs. This situation will change, also due to new features available in the market, like the portability of content abroad.

However, some signals are already in the market. Finnish operators Elisa and DNA are already asking for derogation, as well as all the operators in Lithuania and Estonia, O2 Slovakia and Voo in Belgium. Up to now, it seem that almost 40 derogation requests have been filed in the EU and 24 of these have been granted by national regulators. In addition, domestic tariffs increases are happening in Denmark and Sweden. Moreover, operators are increasing a variety of other charges to try and offset the end to roaming surcharges: in Italy, for instance, mobile network operators have been rescheduling the monthly subscription from 30 days to 4 weeks.

The next months will tell us whether this is just a normal market adjustment or the beginning of a general trend that may frustrate the consumers’ expectation for the end of roaming.

Of course, the above problems may be mitigated should the European institutions decide to lower roaming wholesale caps to level more aligned with the market practice.

 

The European Court puts start-ups and European sharing economy in danger

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The redde rationem between taxi drivers and Uber is getting closer and closer, with the Uberpop application likely to be definitively out-of-law. This may not be a serious prejudice for Uber, which is more concentrated on other value-added modalities such as UberX, Uber Limo ecc where service providers are regular taxi drivers, not private citizens. However, the impact of today’s opinion of the Attorney General of the European Court, Maciej Szpunar, may be more relevant in other sharing economy sectors where the activity of private citizens is prevailing (such as Airbnb, for instance).

The legal opinion rendered in the case C-434/15 Asociación Profesional Elite Taxi vs Uber is not binding for the Court, which will adopt the final, binding decision in 8/10 months. However, statistics say that in 80% of the cases the court substantially confirms the legal solution suggested by the Attorney General.

As we all know, Uber is a US-based company which has developed a successful computer program that can be used on smartphones. The program has created an online platform connecting users and car owners for urban journeys, competing de facto with traditional taxi transportation. The success of Uber and the replication of the same model in other services sectors (doctors, baby-sitting, take-away ecc) has even created the term “uberization”, meaning the process whereby traditional economic activities are replaced by an online platform connecting directly users and providers.

In this preliminary reference, the Court of Justice was asked to determine the type of service provided by Uber, whether transport services, information society services or a combination of both. The question was fundamental to determine whether Uber, and its drivers, may be required to have authorizations and licenses, normally required by national transport legislation. In Barcelona, like in many European cities, the operations by Uber has been challenged by local taxi organizations claiming that Uber and its drivers should hold a normal taxi licenses and be subject to the taxi legislation. This would be, however, the end of the UberPop application as we have learned it sofar. In the specific Spanish case, an absence of such authorizations and licenses amounts to a breach of the provisions governing competition in Spain.

Obviously, Uber always denied to provide transport services, instead claiming that its computer program should be seen as an information society service falling within the scope EU Directive 98/34/EC. This Directive prohibits restrictions on the freedom of establishments and would mean that national taxi legislations could not make such services subject to administrative authorizations. In addition, in the specific case Uber claimed that an authorization scheme applicable to its program and services should be justified by general interest and not be discriminatory, in line with art. 9 Directive 2006/123 which governs authorization schemes and the freedom of establishment.

The opinion of the Attorney General is restrictive vis-à-vis services rendered by private citizens, since it requires them the be subject to the general legislation of the sector. In the case of Uber, this means the end of UberPop, not of other transportation services provided by licensed taxi drivers via the same platform (Uber X, Uber Limo, ecc).

However, the worst impact of this principle will be upon other sharing economy platforms which are based on private citizens rather than on licensed workers. This is the case, for instance, of AirBnb, which is constantly under attack by the hoteling industry. In that case, imposing the full application of hotelling rules upon Airbnb’s clients would be the end of the business model. The same may happen for innovative applications intermediating private citizens. Thus, the final decision to be rendered by the European court would be more fundamental for future European start-ups rather than for Uber.

Why the end of roaming surcharges is not the start of a Single Telecom Market

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The single telecom market which had to be

In the last few years many people, including me, believed that the phasing-out of roaming surcharges would have shaken the European telecom market, transforming the current puzzle of distinct domestic markets into a unified, single and big European telecom market. This was apparently the scope of the legislative initiative encompassing the roaming reform proposed by Commissioner Kroes in 2013, the Single Telecom Act also known as the Connected Continent (which ended up with Regulation 2120/2015). Indeed, we expected that once roaming surcharges would disappear, users would be able to subscribe mobile services from any operator in the EU, thanks to the fact that any domestic mobile tariff would be valid elsewhere in Europe. To make an example, a French citizen would purchase a Finnish mobile SIM from a Finnish operator if he/she believes that retail tariffs in Finland are more convenient than in France. In such circumstances, competition would fiercely emerge at cross-border level, with European citizens looking at better mobile tariffs available abroad, while mobile operators would be targeting clients everywhere in the UE, not only in their domestic market. Thus, the mobile European market would have rapidly becoming a unique competitive space leading to rapid consolidation amongst telecom operators, with the main groups (Telefonica, Orange, Deutsche Telecom and Vodafone) shopping abroad in order to be able to achieve continental scale.

The European institutions would have welcomed such development. In particular, since 2015 the offices of DG Competition have resisted plans for domestic consolidation by telecom operator, while letting open a window for cross-border mergers. The head of Competition directorate, Margaret Vestager, rejected mobile mergers in UK and Denmark, while imposing remedies in Italy, with this making clear that the time for domestic consolidation had ended. According to Vestager, mobile operators could continue to merge only at cross-border level while the phasing-out of roaming surcharges would provide the right incentive for that. The fixed market would have followed, since the biggest mobile operators in Europe are integrated with fixed networks.

What’s gonna happen instead

Despite the above, the expected consolidation in the mobile market is unlikely to happen. This is due to the final mechanism, introduced with regulation 2120/2015, setting the end of roaming surcharges. The retail and wholesale regime should be examine separately.

Retail

The Roaming-Like-At-Home regime introduced by Regulation 2120/2015 does not mean the European citizens may actually use a SIM card everywhere in the EU without paying roaming surcharges. In fact, the regulation prohibits permanent roaming, that is to say roaming services to be used in competition with domestic ones. In other words, European citizens may enjoy a free-roaming regime only when temporarily traveling abroad, not in order to get more favorable retail tariffs from foreign operators. The latter behavior is considered abusive or even fraudulent by the regulation.

Wholesale

While imposing the end of roaming surcharges by June 15, 2017, regulation 2120/2015 sets wholesale roaming access tariffs which are completely misaligned with domestic retail tariffs. Fact is, beginning from June 2017 the operator’s cost to provide roaming abroad will be 7,7 Euro per Gigabyte, with a decreasing glide path ending up with Euro 2,5 per Gigabyte in 2022. Such wholesale tariffs are fully inconsistent with domestic practice, since today mobile operators normally sell one Gigabyte for 1 or 2 Euro on average. It follows that many mobile operators, mainly MVNOs and small mobiles, will face losses when providing roaming services at domestic tariffs. The situation may be different for big mobile operators which normally exchange roaming traffic on the basis of bilateral agreements, based on the fact that inbound and outbound traffic are quite balanced. For such operators, wholesale rates have only a nominal value, no losses are incurred.

Because of the above, the phasing-out of roaming surcharges will put small and competitive operators at risk, while big mobile operators will be reinforced. No pan-european competition may emerge from this scenario, as big mobile operators will continue to defend domestic markets (where they can extract oligopolistic profits), while more competitive operators will be unable to be commercially aggressive. Under such circumstances, there will be no incentive for big mobile operators to merger at continental basis. The telecom market will remain fragmented as it is.

Why it ended up like this

Basically, while the traditional telecom industry had to accept the end of roaming surcharges because of political pressure, it succeeded in convincing the European institutions that domestic markets must be preserved because they are still important to make profit and sustain investments. The misalignment between wholesale tariffs and domestic practice has this scope: preventing foreign operators to attack domestic markets by way of convenient foreign/roaming tariffs. In addition, consumers cannot use foreign SIM to escape less convenient domestic tariffs.

As a result of the above, the scope of a single telecom market will be completely missed. On one side, there is no incentive for operators to provide cross-border services and consequently to merge. On the other side, bigger mobile operators are getting reinforced and will have the possibility to increase domestic tariffs, thus strengthening the isolation amongst domestic mobile markets.

SIAE, the ultimate monopoly

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The Italian antitrust authority has opened an investigation over SIAE, the old-fashioned incumbent holding a legal monopoly position in the Italian market for copyright management. The authority believes that SIAE may have committed some abuses even beyond its monopoly rights with the scope to “exclude all competition in the (investigated) markets, hindering the activities of new entrants and so reducing the freedom of the authors and editors to choose which collecting society to be member of or request services to”.

Whatever will be the outcome of this competition proceeding, the Italian market of copyright management remains something unique in Europe. Unlike other EU countries, where liberalization has been inflated at various levels, in Italy SIAE still enjoys a legal monopoly granted on the basis of a law of 1941 (that is to say during the fascism and even before the attack of Pearl Harbour). The various attempts to open this market has been vain so-far : in 2016 the competition authority signaled to the government that this monopoly should be drastically revised, while competitors have filed complaints with the European Commission. Everything has been ineffective so far: on one side, the Italian government ignored the advice of the competition authority and recently even reinforced the legal monopoly, despite the fact that an option for liberalization was offered while transposing EC Directive 26/2014 on the harmonization of collecting societies in the online music market; on the other side, the European Commission remained officially silent and di not act so-far, despite the fact that SIAE’s competitors have been advocating an intervention on the basis of EU rules and complaints are pending.

The Italian legal monopoly of copyright management is a blatant violation of freedom of services rules and of the Bolkestein directive, since it prevents operators lawfully authorized and operating in the EU to enter into the Italian copyright management market. In other words, when music in Italy is played, streamed or broadcasted, only SIAE is entitled to collect the copyright fee from the users and pay it to the authors. Because of this monopoly status, SIAE has no real incentive to be efficient, cheap and rapid, because authors have no clear legal right to access to competing services. Despite to that, in the last years some operators have entered the market in the hope that the government would have liberalized this business (and thus almost 8000 authors have left SIAE for competitors). SIAE is reacting suing them in front of courts and, because of the recent confirmation of the legal monopoly regime by the Italian government, it may have the real chance to bring the clock back to 1941. So, the legal situation is grey and only a clear intervention by a deus ex machina, that is to say the European Commission, could clarify the scenario.

The position of the Italian government is confused and difficult to understand: the competent ministry, Dario Franceschini of the Partito Democratico of the former premier Matteo Renzi, has shown mixed feeling regarding monopoly and liberalization. Various voices in the party have been advocating a drastic reform of SIAE, also considering the vocation of Renzi to close down (rottamare) the most embarrassing legacies in Italy. Despite of that and nothwitstanding the conflict with EU basic rules, and disregarding the European benchmark showing that the liberalization is the norm, the Ministry Franceschini backed an antistorical, reactionary view of the copyright management market: only one guy, SIAE, can legally make business there, others must stay out.

The start of an antitrust proceedings today is the first consequence of this position, further news may come from Brussels soon.

Stop with expensive after-sale service calls

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The cost of a call to an after-sales telephone number must not exceed the cost of a standard call. This is what decided the European Court of the European Union in decision rendered today in a case of a German consumers association (Zentrale zur Bekämpfung unlauteren Wettbewerbs Frankfurt am Main) against a retailer (Comtech GmbH) which was to charge expensive tariffs open customers calling the after-sale service telephone number.

The practice of charging unfair and expensive telephone tariffs to people requiring after- sale assistance is quite common and particularly detested by consumers. Traditional and online retailers, airlines, insurance and financial companies, utilities, may be particularly nasty in this respect.  The paradox is that the expensive tariffs did not encourage companies to be efficient and customer-friendly. The intervention of the European court has therefore stopped an unfair practice that national authorities were not able to control, apparently.

Under the relevant rules (Directive 2011/83/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on consumer rights) Member States must ensure that where a trader operates a telephone line for the purpose of being contacted in relation to contracts concluded with consumers, consumers are not to be bound to pay more than the basic rate for calls to that line. However, the concept of a ‘basic rate’ is not defined by the directive.

To solve this issue, the European court stated  that the concept of ‘basic rate’ must be interpreted as meaning that call charges relating to a contract concluded with a trader to a telephone helpline operated by the trader may not exceed the cost of a call to a standard geographic landline or mobile telephone line. According to the Court, in everyday language ‘the basic rate’ refers to the standard cost of a call. Both the context in which that concept occurs in the directive and the purpose of that directive, namely to ensure a high level of consumer protection, confirm that the concept must be understood in that ordinary sense of the term.

While the case concern an internal dispute, it will interesting to see whether further cases may arise when after-sales services are rendered to customers resident in another Member State. The matter needs to be followed up.