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Universal service and users' rights

The European Union intends to ensure the availability of a minimum set of high-quality services that are available to all users at an affordable price, without distortion of competition. It therefore lays down obligations with regard to the provision of certain mandatory services, such as the retail provision of leased lines. It also establishes end-users' rights and the corresponding obligations of undertakings that provide publicly available electronic communications networks and services.

ACT

Directive 2002/22/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 March 2002 on universal service and users' rights relating to electronic communications networks and services (Universal Service Directive) [Official Journal L 108 of 24 April 2002]. [See amending acts].

SUMMARY

The Universal Service Directive is part of the "Telecoms Package" which, together with four other directives ("framework", " access and interconnection", "authorisation" and "private life and electronic communications"), aims to recast the existing regulatory framework for telecommunications and to make the electronic communications sector more competitive. The “Telecoms Package” was amended in December 2009 by the two Directives “Better law-making” and the “Citizens' rights”, as well as by a body of European regulators for electronic communications.

Universal service obligations

The Directive defines universal service as the “minimum set of services of specified quality to which all end-users have access, at an affordable price in the light of specific national conditions, without distorting competition”.

Availability of the universal service

Member States must ensure that the electronic communications services detailed in the Directive are made available to all users in their territory, regardless of their geographical location, at a specified quality level and an affordable price.

Provision of access at a fixed location and telephone services

A fundamental requirement of universal service is to provide users on request with a connection to the public telephone network at a fixed location and at an affordable price. The connection provided shall enable end-users to take charge of voice communications, facsimile communications and data communications, at data rates that are sufficient to permit functional Internet access, the provision of which may be restricted by Member States to the end-user's primary residence. There should be no constraints on the technical means by which the connection is provided.

Directory enquiry services and directories

Directory enquiry services and directories. At least one comprehensive directory which is updated at least once a year must be available to end-users. Similarly, at least one directory enquiry service must be available to end-users, including users of public pay telephones.

Public pay telephones and other access points to publicly available telephone services

The national regulatory authorities (NRAs) must be able to impose obligations on undertakings to ensure that public pay telephones or other access points to publicly available telephone services are provided to meet the needs of end-users, whether in terms of geographical coverage, the number of telephones or other access points, the accessibility of such telephones to disabled users or the quality of services.

Special measures for disabled users

The term "universal" means that the Member States must ensure that disabled users enjoy a service which meets their needs and is of an equivalent standard to those enjoyed by other users. In order to achieve this, access must be the same at a functional level, such that disabled end-users can use the same services as other end-users, but through different means. Member States may require the NRAs to assess the general need and specific requirements of the type of measures particularly for disabled end-users.

Designation of undertakings

The Member States may designate one or more undertakings to guarantee the provision of universal service. The Member States may also designate different undertakings to provide different elements of universal service and/or to cover different parts of the national territory.

Affordability of tariffs

The Member States shall ensure that consumers with low incomes have access to special tariff arrangements or are given special assistance to enable them to have access to the network and to use it. The special tariffs must either be provided by the designated undertaking, or already be available on the market. Furthermore, the Member States may require undertakings which have universal service obligations to comply with price caps or to apply common tariffs, including geographical averaging, throughout the national territory.

Quality of service

The national regulatory authorities must set performance targets for undertakings with universal service obligations and monitor compliance with these targets by designated undertakings.

Financing of universal service obligations

In order to compensate for the net costs to which the provision of universal service might give rise, compensation mechanisms for operators with universal service obligations may be provided for. This may involve the introduction of a mechanism to compensate from public funds and/or a mechanism to share costs between providers of electronic communications networks and services.

Regulatory control of undertakings with significant retail market power

The aim is to strike a balance between promoting the interests of European citizens and ensuring effective competition, while providing for a minimum of regulatory intervention in order to establish a common level of rights throughout the European Community.

The national regulatory authorities must impose obligations with regard to retail services identified as not being effectively competitive, including in particular the requirement that undertakings do not charge excessive prices, inhibit market entry or restrict competition by setting predatory prices.

Users' interests and rights

The users of electronic telecommunications services enjoy a number of rights, including in particular:

  • the right to have a contract concluded with one or more undertakings where consumers subscribe to services providing connection to the telephone network. The contract must contain a minimum set of information: the identity and address of the supplier, the types of services provided (including, in particular, if access to the emergency services is provided or not, information on all other conditions limiting access to services and applications and/or their use, and the minimum quality levels of services offered, etc.), the duration of the contract and renewal conditions, the arrangements for procedures for settling disputes, etc.;
  • the provision by operators of transparent, up-to-date information on applicable prices and tariffs;
  • the setting of minimum requirements in terms of quality of service in order to prevent the deterioration of the service and the obstruction or slowing down of traffic on the networks;
  • the publication by undertakings which offer publicly accessible electronic communications services of comparable, adequate and up-to-date information on the quality of their services;
  • the guarantee that, in the event of catastrophic network breakdown or in cases of force majeure, access to the public telephone network remains available to users;
  • the provision of operator assistance and directory enquiry services.

The single European emergency call number (112) must remain free of charge, even from public pay telephones. The undertakings involved must make caller location information available free-of-charge to the authority handling emergency calls as soon as the call reaches the aforementioned authority.

The Directive also makes it easier to change providers through the ability for users to retain their telephone number (fixed or mobile) when they change operator. Subscribers who have concluded an agreement regarding the porting of a number to a new operator must have this number activated within one working day. However, the pricing between operators and providers should not dissuade a subscriber from changing provider.

Member States shall promote specific harmonised "116" numbers for services with a social purpose, including the emergency number for “Missing children".

Member States may impose reasonable "must carry" obligations for the broadcast of radio and television channels, in particular accessibility services aimed at ensuring suitable access for disabled end-users, on undertakings under their jurisdiction which provide electronic communications networks.

General and final provisions

Consultation with interested parties

With regard to end-users' rights, the national regulatory authorities are required to take account of the views of end-users, consumers, manufacturers and undertakings that provide electronic communications networks and/or services. Member States shall specifically ensure that the NRAs establish a consultation mechanism which ensures that the interests of consumers, in terms of electronic communications, are duly taken into account.

Out-of-court resolution of disputes

Simple, transparent, non-discriminatory and inexpensive out-of-court procedures must be made available to users for dealing with unresolved disputes relating to universal service obligations. Where appropriate and warranted, the Member States may adopt a system of reimbursement and/or compensation.

REFERENCES

ActEntry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal

Directive 2002/22/EC

24.04.2002

24.07.2003

OJ L 108 of 24.04.2002

Amending act(s)Entry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal

Directive 2009/136/EC

19.12.2009

25.5.2011

OJ l 337 of 18.12.2009

RELATED ACTS

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the second periodic review of the scope of universal service in electronic communications networks and services in accordance with Article 15 of Directive 2002/22/EC [COM (2008) 572 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This Communication examines the concept of the universal service obligation (USO) in the electronic communications sector, as well as the scope of universal service itself.
Access to mobile communications at an affordable price has developed considerably in recent years due to the introduction of competition between mobile services. This service consequently does not meet the conditions for the application of universal service.
Broadband internet is also developing strongly due to competition between parallel infrastructures (between 2003 and 2007, broadband use by households in the European Union tripled). But broadband is also no longer covered by the current Directive. However, this report finds that access to broadband communications is not just needed for competitiveness and economic growth but is becoming a prime objective of consumer welfare and digital inclusion.
For these reasons and in order to initiate a public debate, the Commission raises the question whether universal service is an appropriate tool to advance broadband development and mobile telephony or whether these services should be left to other Community instruments or to national measures.

Last updated: 18.05.2010
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