National regulators challenge EU's telecoms price proposal

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission should not set specific fees for telecoms firms seeking access to traditional copper networks as it would mean consumers paying more in Poland, Austria and eight other EU countries, national regulators said on Tuesday.

The regulators, which are responsible for implementing the Commission's decisions in their home markets, said they should have the freedom to adjust prices to take into account domestic factors

The comments by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), whose members are made up of the heads of 27 EU national regulators, came three months after the European Commission unveiled draft proposals to boost broadband investments in the region.

Concerned that Europe could be falling behind the United States and Asia in rolling out high-speed broadband networks, the EU executive suggested that monthly rental access prices per customer should range between 8 and 10 euros (8.4 pounds) by the end of 2016.

The commission hopes that if established telecoms firms make more money from their legacy networks, they will be able to plough it back into investments in high-speed networks.

The proposed rates would mean higher charges for users in the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Estonia and five other EU countries, all of which currently offer rates below 8 euros, according to separate Commission data.

However, Ireland, which now has the highest month cost at 12.41 euros, Finland, Britain and Luxembourg would have to cut prices.

The Commission's proposal concerned legacy copper networks, which incumbents such as Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, France Telecom and Telecom Italia, inherited when they were privatised in the 1990s.

Smaller telecoms providers have already criticised the recommendation as they would have to pay more to rent space on networks.

The Commission should allow operators to be more flexible with the price range, BEREC said in a statement.

"BEREC would welcome the Commission's explicit clarification in the final Recommendation that the 8-10 euros per month price range is not mandatory and that prices outside this range are acceptable if they can be objectively justified," the body said in a non-binding opinion.

BEREC is calling for the EU executive to water down its proposals, said telecoms consultant Innocenzo Genna.

"The national regulators refuse to follow the Commission's diktat as how to regulate telecom networks (with regard to pricing and non-discrimination) and invoke their autonomy in deciding how to address specific national cases," he said.

Genna said it might be difficult for EU telecoms chief Neelie Kroes to ignore BEREC.

"It is difficult to believe that the Commission will completely disregard the Berec's (non-binding) opinion, since a fair cooperation between the 2 bodies is necessary to guarantee the good functioning of the framework," he said.

An EU Commission spokesman for telecoms policy was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Andrew Hay)