European Commission Consultation on
Universal Service Principles
Response from the
International Telecommunications Users Group (INTUG)
INTUG welcomes the opportunity to provide a response to the European Commission‘s consultation on behalf of business users who depend today on access to networks.
The INTUG position on Universal “Service” has been consistent for many years, having evolved from the first days of competition, when the ex-monopoly incumbent was required to ensure that the provision of basic services to all was protected, when the operator might wish to cease provision of services, due to their uneconomic nature providing inadequate return to shareholders. There has been much debate and inconsistent conclusions around the world as to the real net cost (if any) to an incumbent, or SMP operator, of having to provide ”universal service”. The issue has become a dinosaur in terms of its scope, which relates to the era of fixed telephony, printed directories, call boxes and state monopolies.
There are three main areas associated with this consultation on universal “service” principles, which most concern INTUG’s members and those they represent.
Firstly, the term Universal Service is becoming increasingly inappropriate to describe the issue being addressed. Universal Access is a more appropriate term, since the issue is about ensuring the ability to participate in modern society, as an individual, or a business. The take up of services, of which only some will be communications, is a quite separate issue, for which different industry mechanisms and different sources of funding are more appropriate politically and socially. Furthermore, the funding of Affordability, as opposed to Availability, should be subject to different social and fiscal considerations. There is a serious risk of scope creep. The telecoms sector should not be a source of funding for a range of laudable political and social objectives to do with e-health, e-Education, energy, social mobility, transport etc, whose departments should fund commercial service usage.
Secondly, Universal Service (or Access) is not simply an issue for the mass consumer market, but is also vital to the business market, and its need for access to services. If a business is to succeed in the modern world, it must be able to reach not just some or most, but all of its business partners and customers with innovative business processes, based on on-line communications, wherever they are, and this requires universal access. But it is not necessarily the same quality of access as that defined by current headline broadband measures geared to the mass consumer market. Upstream capacity, actual performance, latency, contention ratios, resilience and service reliability, and total actual operational quality are also critical prerequisites. The definition of universal access must not be just a mass-market headline downstream offering, which oversimplifies the goal.
Thirdly, Universal Access provision must not limit the availability of any service function, application or content, and hence must be provided in an open competitive market, so a business can contract for its supply from a single provider, covering multiple Member States (and countries outside the EU). It must be an enabler of seamless service, not a potential barrier. The link with the NGA recommendation wording is therefore crucial.
This may be facilitated in some cases if the Universal Access provision (possibly within the terms of an extended obligation) is based on some form of separate operating entity.
The overriding principle here relates to network neutrality and interoperability at all levels.
Some INTUG members are in countries without a significant issue concerning access to service from remote and rural areas, for example due to the existence of near 100% penetration of cable, and hence this issue has not historically been a priority in their representation of business users. This suggests that in those cases, some Member State or even regional flexibility may be appropriate. But for most INTUG members, and those they represent, and this includes countries outside the EU, a guarantee of universal high speed broadband access remains a key priority, to ensure digital inclusion in society and the economic benefits that come from seamless universal connectivity for business.
A recent BBC survey in the UK found that 80% of people believe access to the Internet is a basic human right.
INTUG recommends that the universal service principles are established in such a way that if a universal access obligation is established for a single organisation that it does result in the service provider of the obligation becoming the chief beneficiary, with the monopoly profits previously accruing to incumbent state-owned operators. Competition must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of providing Universal Access. There must also be legal contingency plans to cover for the eventuality of the failure of the universal access provider, guaranteeing continuity of service for customers.
Specific responses to the questionnaire are included in the following pages.