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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.

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.

What the European institutions will not say about the disguised end of roaming surcharges: the end of mobile competition and the rise of mobile tariffs

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BREAKING NEWS: DURING THE NIGHT THE TRILOGUE AGREED UPON EURO 7,7 EURO/GIGA TO FALL UP TO 2,5 EURO/GIGA IN THE NEXT YEARS. I REGRETTABLY CONFIRM THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN MY BELOW POST

In the night of January 31, 2017 representatives of European Parliament, Council and Commission are set to agree on the maximum levels (so-called “wholesale roaming caps”) mobile operators can charge each other for access to their networks in order to allow customers to use services when traveling abroad without paying roaming surcharges (so called roaming like at home).

While everybody agrees that the end of roaming surcharges will be beneficial for all consumers, it is sad to see that the selected mechanism will affect competition and allow a rapid increase of mobile tariffs everywhere in Europe. This is due to the high level of wholesale roaming caps that will be agreed tonight, which is expected to be between 7 and 8,50 Euro per Gigabyte (and with a weak glide path). Since most of retail tariffs in Europe offer one Gigabyte for 1 or 2 euro, it is evident that most operators will not be able to recover their costs when providing roaming to their customers. In order to prevent losses, they should be increasing domestic retail offers, or even stopping providing roaming services. Others may invoke a sustainability mechanism allowing them to continue to apply roaming surcharges in order to be able to pay the wholesale roaming caps.

Big mobile operators will be less affected by the level of wholesale roaming surcharges, thanks to the ability to compensate reciprocally the roaming traffic in the frame of established bilateral agreements (someone call them cartels). However, thanks to the struggles and pains by small and competitive mobile and MVNO operators, big mobile ones will have less competitive pressure and may start to increase price back, as it is already happening by the way.

Even worst: because of a complex mechanism provide by arts. 4.2. and 4.3. of Regulation 2016/2286 (the implementing rules enacted by the European commission last December to regulate in details this matter), the highest the level of wholesale caps, the fewer the roaming traffic exempted  by surcharges that users my benefit in case they have an unlimited Internet plan or a pre-paid sim card.

The European institutions are aware of this poisoned effect of the “end of roaming”, however they have not been able to agree on lower wholesale caps due to various reasons.

The European Commission, in lack of credibility, needs to officially declare the end of roaming at all costs, no matter for the side effects. President Juncker took a personal political initiative on this matter in order to be able to set an historical precedent and imposed the end of roaming by way of legislation, although the offices of the Commission (especially the one sin DG Connect) were well aware of the side effects of this result and have been working in order to minimise them. Nevertheless, the political pressure prevailed over reality and basic economics.

The Council, i.e. the governments, is splitted but, at the end, is caught by some Member States (France and Germany) who want to protect their mobile market and oligopoly therein while others (the Mediterranean countries) are willing to continue to monetize some cash brought by summer tourists.

The Parliament has been much more fighting and one should recognize that the rapporteur, the Finnish Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, has been trying to propose more competitive wholesale caps (starting at 4 Euro per Gigabyte in 2017 and down to one Euro in 2020) together with the shadow rapporteurs of the other political parties. The EPP issued a crystal clear press release making clear that wholesale caps should be below retail tariffs, not above.

However, even these commendable efforts have been vain due the intransigence of Council and Commission.

What the end of Renzi government means for the Italian digital and ultra-broadband sector

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The resignation of Matteo Renzi following the defeat at the Constitutional Referendum of December 4th, 2016, creates the question as how Italy will ever fill the gap with other developed nations in the matter of digital services and ultra-broadband networks.

Whether you like him or not, there is no doubt that Matteo Renzi has been the first Italian premier showing a concrete interest vis-à-vis Internet and digital infrastructures, putting them at the core of the governmental policy. Before him, Italian governments have been merely dealing with television and broadcasting regulation, while the development of the digital sector was never a priority. The only serious concern of previous governments in the area of telecoms was the ownership of Telecom Italia, whether the company will become a subsidiary of whom. But no Italian premier ever took action or made pressure to force Telecom Italia to invest in high-speed networks. As a result, the traditional Italian telephony company has been relying, longer than other European incumbents, on the old-fashioned and depreciated copper telephony network rather than installing new fibers networks in massive way. No need for that.

With Matteo Renzi, the situation changed dramatically. It might be for a matter of age or personal experiences, the former mayor of Florence never liked very much Telecom Italia and its bills. Renzi launched an ambitious ultra-broadband plan to fill the gap in the vaste provincial and rural areas of Italy (the European Commission cleared the plan last June). Telecom Italia was offered to benefit of that plan and also to buy Metroweb, a company (controlled by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti) installing and offering ultra-broadband networks in big Italian cities. However, government and Telecom Italia did not find a common agreement on important conditions: while Renzi was aiming at strongly modernizing and re-shaping the Italian telecom market, Telecom Italia preferred to keep alive the copper network as much as possible and did not want to hear about structural separation of its network (a possible outcome when combining its network assets with Metroweb). Telecom Italia was probably thinking to be winning at the very end, thanks to the traditional instability and weakness of Italian governments, but it was wrong.

The stallo situation was “sparigliata” (broken) by the entry into the market of Enel, the Italian energy utility which launched a plan for ultra-broadband investments and offered to buy Metroweb. In the meanwhile, the Italian government granted a State-owned company, Infratel, the task to install ultra-broadband networks in rural areas. The emergence of new network operators changed dramatically the landscape: Telecom Italia ended up with “melina” and started to seriously invest in fibers.

Beside that, Renzi’s governments has been strongly intervening in the digital sector with various legislations in the matter of net neutrality, online platforms, sharing economy; they finally appointed as Digitalist Chief Diego Piacentini, a seconded senior executive of Amazon, to coordinate and make progress the digital agenda in Italy. The choice of Matteo Renzi’s about Diego Piacentini was challenged by someone because of potential conflicts of interests: nevertheless, no one could object the professional level of the Chief Digitalis and the need to coordinate the various Italian agencies competent for digital.

One would wonder whether the above was just a transitory acceleration and now Italy will fall back into traditional inertia. The main winner of the Constitutional Referendum, the 5-Stars Movement, has been traditionally relying on the Internet rather then other medias. However, despite some individual positions, it is not clear whether this political party has a concrete and coherent industrial policy for ultra-broadband and the digital sector in general. Irrespective whether they will become a force of government, the 5-Stars Movement and its leader, the comedian Beppe Grillo, should start to think about and say something to the people.

The end of domestic mobile consolidation in the EU

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Rumors say that tomorrow 4 of May (or later during the month) the European Commission will render a negative  opinion (a prohibition, in other words) about the merge in UK between the mobile operators 02 (Telefonica) and Three (Hutchison Wampoa).

If confirmed, this move will not come unexpected because in many instances the Competition Directorate (DG Comp) of the European Commission has suggested that mobile consolidation in mobile domestic market is not welcomed. Instead, mobile operators should  rather look at cross-border consolidation, creating pan-european operators able to compete in a cross-borders scenario that will become more and more actual when (and if) the roaming surcharges will be phased out in June 2017. At that point, European operators may be able to provide mobile subscriptions to be used in a plurality of European countries and, as a result, consumers my theoretically choose a foreign mobile operator even for domestic needs (this situation, named permanent roaming, is however contested and sometimes considered even “abusive”. This is another story, for now).

The UK precedent will create a fundamental landmark case for the European telecom sector and, as a consequence of that, it is unlikely the similar mergers (see for instance the current one in Italy between Three and Wind) will ever be approved in the future.

Concerned mobile operators will probably complain that the “4 to 3” consolidation is necessary in UK, like in Italy or France, to boost network investments. However, it is crystal clear that the European Commission has heard and carefully considered this argument, without finding, however, concrete evidence. If the investment argument was credible, the merging entity should have accepted the Commission’s desired remedy, that is to say the creation of a new mobile operator through the transfer of spectrum, network resources and customer base by the merging entities. Such new mobile operator should not have damaged the investment plan of the merged mobile operator. By disregarding this option, Hutchison and O2 have reinforced in the Commissions the suspect that the reduction of mobile operators is merely focussed on limiting competition and increasing margins (to the detriment of consumers).

For future guidance, one would hope that the European Commission will provide a robust reasoning for its decision. Such reasoning missed in a precedent case, the aborted merger in Denmark between Telenor and TeliaSonera, because the parties abandoned the transaction before getting a formal rejection. By contrast, now it would important that the Commission clarifies that competition conditions are more important than “magic numbers”, such as 3 or 4 operators. What really matters, for competition, is a market structure encouraging the players to really compete and gain new customers. In mobile markets this surely happens when markets shares are unbalanced and there are small players, mobile operators but also MVNO, fighting to increase their position.

This is the reason why also the envisaged merger in Italy between Wind and Hutchison is close to fail (a dead walking man, to be clear. Fact is, following the potential merger the 3 Italian operators left, such as TIM, Vodafone and Three/Wind, would detain balanced markets shares – a scenario that, according to the European Commission, facilitate mutual collusion rather than competition.

Two items will probably remain opened after the (likely) rejection decision, tomorrow or in the next weeks:

1. did the European Commission sufficiently considered the MVNO remedies offered by the parties? It seems that DG COMP has never believed too much in MVNOs, disregarding the competitive pressures that such MVNOs may exercise over mobile operators. Indeed, DG COMP has the power to impose strong MVNO remedies, instead of imposing the creation of a new mobile operator, and the efficiency of such virtual operators rely on the mobile access conditions that the European Commission itself may decide.

2. In the future there will be a discrepancies between countries (Germany, Ireland and Austria) where mobile mergers have been approved thanks to the previous laissez-faire of DG COMP (when headed by Almunia) and countries where such mergers are going to be prohibited due to the stricter approach of the same DG COMP (now headed by Vestager). Should the European Commission start to think how to redress passed mistakes?

And what about #brexit? Many commentators  may argue that the Commission’s decision my be seen as an attempt to please UK. I would say that this is just a coincidence: OFCOM and DG COMP have similar view about mobile consolidation, although the reason for each may be complex: OFCOM wants to keep 4 mobile operators to protect consumers and to avoid the need to intervene with regulation into the mobile market; DG COMP wants to boost pan-european consolidation, and the best way to do it is to forbid the domestic one.

European court rushes in rescue of hyperlinks

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An opinion rendered today by the Court of Justice of the European Communities appears very innovative with regard the legal status of hyperlinks and their relation with copyright law. If confirmed in a final judgment, the opinion is susceptible to provide additional and substantial certainty to the development of Internet and digital businesses.

According to Advocate General Wathelet who rendered an opinion in the Case C-160/15 (GS Media BV v Sanoma Media Netherlands BV and Playboy Enterprises International Inc. and Britt Geertruida Dekker) the posting of a hyperlink to a website which published photos without authorization does not in itself constitute a copyright infringement. In particular, the motivation of the person who placed the hyperlink and the fact that this person may know or not whether the initial posting was authorized, is irrelevant.

The Advocate General seems to see the legal status of hyperlinks quite differently from what the European court thought in the previous case Svensson (2014):

  • in the latter case, the European court confirmed that hyperlinks are act of communication under the Copyright Directive, and therefore they need the authorization by the right holders of the content which the hyperlink is referring to; then, however, the court elaborated a reasoning for an exception (if the content referred to is already in the public domain, then the authorization is not needed);
  • in the present case, the Advocate General states that “hyperlinks which are placed on a website and which link to protected works that are freely accessible on another site cannot be classified as an ‘act of communication’ within the meaning of the Directive”.

This opinion of the Advocate General, if confirmed in the final judgement by the European Court, would add clarity clarity and legal certainty to any Internet users, whether a business or even an individual, using hyperlinks to refer to other pages or content in the Internet. By contrast, a different rule would jeopardize any initiative in the Internet because making a preliminary check whether a given content or image has been initially communicated to the public in licit way, would be practically impossibile.

This principle may have a deep impact on the dynamics about fight against digital piracy: the content industry would then be more encouraged in targeting websites were unauthorized content has been intentionally published, asking for removal, rather than targeting thousand of websites which, by simply referring to the initial one with a simple hyperlink, may not know about the lawfulness of the situation.

The same principle may play in favor of innovative digital business models, including platforms and search engines, which base their business in connecting the content spread in the Net.

One should remember the European institutions are currently revising the Copyright Directive and, in case a reform is launched, the present judgment will be quite relevant with regard to the rules applicable to hyperlinks.  Content industry is sometimes asking to restrict then usage of hyperlinks by adding a special liability for that – a system which would seriously affect any business and individual initiative in the Internet.

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As regard the legal case and the facts, one should remember that pursuant to the Copyright Directive 2001/29, each act of communication of a work to the public has to be authorized by the copyright holder. The question is whether a simple hyperlink may be considered an “act of communication”.

Sanoma, the editor of the monthly magazine Playboy, commissioned a photoshoot of popular Dutch character, Britt Dekker. A website named GeenStijl published advertisements and a hyperlink directing viewers to an Australian website where the photos in question were made available without the consent of Sanoma. Despite demands from Sanoma, GennStijl refused to remove the hyperlink in question. When the Australian website removed the photos upon Sanoma’s request, GeenStijl published a new advertisement which also contained a hyperlink to another website on which the photos in question could be seen. That site also complied with Sanoma’s request to remove the photos. Finally, internet users who frequent the GeenStijl forum posted new links to other websites where the photos could be viewed.

According to the solution suggested by the Advocate General, the behavior of Geenstijl was lawful, since the request for removal should have been addressed to the website initially posting the content.

NB: the Advocate General’s Opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice. It is the role of the Advocates General to propose to the Court, in complete independence, a legal solution to the cases for which they are responsible. The Judges of the Court are now beginning their deliberations in this case and a judgment will be given at a later date. Normally, in the 80% of the cases the judges confirm the legal solution suggested by the Advocate General.

Terror does not stop the Internet

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The images of the departure hall of the international airport of Brussels are devastating, and these of the Maalbeek metro as well. Today’s terrorist attack in Brussels was a shot to our European heart, not just to Belgium. Airports and central metro stations were full of traveling expats who daily work within the European institutions, and we expect most of victims and casualties to be counted amongst the international presence in Brussels.

Notably, while traditional telephony lines, especially mobile, have encountered inconveniences following the attack (due to saturation), Internet connection have continued to work properly and people have been able to communicate via WIFI and mobile access: thus, mobile VOIP and social chats have been the fundamental, effective way to stay in touch and inform the people of the current situation.

This reminds to us that the Internet was created to resist to emergency situation and disruption of communication due to devastating events, and it is working properly still now; while all the discussions about regulated and top-down universal service are a waste of time (and money)