Member of the European Commission responsible for Information Society and
BEUC's Annual General Assembly
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It's nice to be with friends who have helped us in our fights. I thank you for standing for my interests and I am grateful for your commitment and contribution to the EU policy-making process.
You know that throughout my mandate as Commissioner for Information Society and Media, the consumers have been at the forefront of my thoughts and actions.
Review of the EU telecoms rules
This is why for me the on-going telecoms reform is the key for achieving the common single market in telecoms. With this reform, we aim to bring consumers more choice, better quality and greater value for money, not only in the big cities and we want to help them make informed choices.
The reform is about bringing effective competition to the benefit of consumers. The Commission's proposals are therefore aimed at tackling areas where effective competition is developing too slowly, or where structural obstacles continue to impede crucial markets, such as broadband.
Competition is always good for the consumer because it brings lower prices, better quality services and more choice. But it is not always easy for a consumer to understand the various differences or similarities between all the offers on the market.
I have always insisted on better information for the consumers so they can take full advantage of competitive offers. A good example is the efforts we have made to enable users to "switch" suppliers within one working day while keeping their telephone number – a Commission proposal that was endorsed already by the European Parliament and that will now be discussed by national telecoms ministers on 27 November. I hope that consumers across Europe expect a positive outcome of these discussions.
As for security and privacy, we want to ensure better enforcement to combat security threats at national level and to tackle spam. Telecoms operators will also be required to inform their customers whenever their personal data is compromised (for example, illegally accessed or copied, or lost) as a result of a security problem.
Following the European Parliament vote on the Telecoms Package on 24 September, I have put modified proposals on the table so that the 'first reading' between the co-legislators can be finalised rapidly after the Telecoms Council meeting of November. My objective is to facilitate an early 'second reading' agreement between co-legislators in the first half of 2009. This would allow for the telecoms reform to be adopted before the end of this legislature, so that the new pro-competitive and pro-consumer rules could come into force in 2010.
This is my vision for the future. Allow me now to turn and reflect on how far we have already gone in creating a consumer-oriented approach to regulation.
So far, the Roaming Regulation has led to significant reductions, of up to 60%, in voice roaming prices for millions of EU consumers. The Roaming Regulation has also ensured that consumers are now benefiting from more transparent information on roaming charges.
However, the news is not all perfect. Unfortunately, prices seem to have clustered very close to the maximum allowed ceilings. This is why the Commission proposes to extend the duration and scope of that Regulation with effect from 1 July 2009. You will no doubt recall the uproar that occurred when I first proposed a cut in roaming tariffs back in 2006.
Some telecoms operators were very strong about the negative effects the proposed Regulation would have on jobs and on prices for national calls. This didn't happen.
Today, the new Commission proposals have been much better received, as all politicians can now see the benefits that this brings to their citizens and to the single market. Consumers have indeed become a powerful force in shaping EU Telecoms policy!
Along with the extension of the Roaming Regulation for three years, the European Commission is proposing to bring SMS roaming prices down, because these services are particularly used by younger consumers.
The Commission also has addressed, with the same determination, the phenomenon of 'bill shock' for data roaming services. You will all be aware of this phenomenon whereby customers are being requested to pay several thousand of Euros for downloading material from the internet while roaming – in one case €40,000 for downloading a TV show over a roaming mobile line.
My proposal also requires per second billing while permitting a maximum of 30 second initial charging interval to cover call set-up costs. In this way, consumers will not be faced with a hidden charge which some operators have often been charging for a full first minute.
I am confident that the Commission's proposals will now be intensively discussed in the European Parliament and Council. I expect that already the meeting of the EU telecoms Ministers on 27 November could allow us to make substantial progress on the new Roaming Regulation. My objective is for the new regulation to be in place and effective on 1 July 2009. To this end, I look forward to the continued support of BEUC.
But roaming is not my only concern. Endorsing a consumer oriented approach also means working for a consistent regulation in national call termination markets. Today, regulated termination rates vary significantly among the 27 Member States ranging from an average rate of 2 cents per minute to over 18 cents. This cannot be explained only by differences in costs and differing national circumstances. I can tell you that these differences stem from the costing models, benchmarks and glide paths chosen explicitly by the national regulators.
This situation cannot continue forever if we are really serious about achieving the single European market in telecommunications and about empowering consumers. The Commission is therefore finalising in these days a Recommendation on the regulatory treatment of both fixed and mobile termination rates in the EU. This Recommendation will set out clear and consistent principles for national telecoms regulators on the relevant cost elements to be taken into account when they analyse their call termination markets and impose appropriate measures.
The objective is ultimately to deliver the benefits of increased competition to European consumers, including lower prices and innovative services. During the public consultation on this draft Recommendation, BEUC provided very useful input, underlining that the higher the level of termination rates, the higher the retail price for consumers. With this response, you have unveiled that the lobbying message of some incumbents – that lower mobile termination rates would be detrimental for the consumer – is unfounded. I am grateful that, like the Commission, BEUC sees competition and cost-orientation as key instruments for achieving consumer benefits on the telecoms markets in Europe.
We need to have a wide discussion about the future universal service policy. In particular, the importance of broadband in our daily lives raises policy questions about the universality of access to e-communications services for the future. I have therefore launched a policy debate on the role of universal service for achieving "broadband for all".
The main question is whether universal service at EU level is an appropriate tool to advance broadband development – especially in under-served rural and remote areas – and if so, when and how it should be used. We need also to consider implementing arrangements and the costs of universal service, and the feasibility of a "one-size-fits-all approach" in an EU of 27 Member States with different conditions and different markets.
This issue will be discussed for the first time by the Telecoms Ministers in November, and I am sure that also the European Parliament will come back to this subject soon. I invite you to use this review period for further discussion.
This brings me to the single European Emergency number 112, which is all about saving lives. Over the past four years, I have been very intensive in my fight to promote the European emergency number 112, financing research projects, working together with national authorities and, when necessary, taking legal action.
We have acted to ensure that Member States comply with EU rules, in particular as regards the availability of 112 and the provision of caller location information for all 112 calls. And this has proved to be effective: 17 infringements proceedings were launched in the last years, ten of which have already been closed following corrective measures.
We have paid special attention to the needs of people with physical impairments or who are seriously injured in an accident and can't move. They may find it difficult to communicate with the 112 centres. To start with, in the review of the telecoms package, I inserted provisions aimed at improving accessibility for disabled people. Secondly we also have eCall, the Pan-European in-vehicle emergency call system, a voluntary system of the industry and national authorities. In case of a serious accident, the vehicle will trigger automatically a 112 call to the closest emergency response centre and send a message with its accurate position. This will speed up the emergency service response and lower the subsequent effects on fatalities and severity of injuries. It is crucial to get to hospital as quickly as possible. eCall is estimated to be able to save up to 2,500 lives annually in Europe if all vehicles were equipped. I am working hard with public and private stakeholders with the target of offering eCall as a standard option in all new cars from 2010. But despite all these efforts, most EU citizens still do not know about 112. I will therefore continue to promote 112 as one of my priorities. There will be a special 112 event on the 11th of February (1-1-2) in 2009 organised together with the European Parliament and the Council. I take this opportunity to ask the BEUC to inform citizens widely about the 112 number
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me turn now to an issue which is very close to my heart: the health of the European citizens and the contribution that the information society can, and has to give to its improvement. Health care is becoming more and more expensive and the burden of this cost on society is increasing steadily because of the constantly ageing of the population.
Major progress has been made in the area of eHealth. Back in 2004 a European strategy for eHealth was set out with the objective to ensure that as many Europeans as possible could benefit from the opportunities that Information and Communication Technologies can provide to the healthcare sector.
In July, as part of the Social Agenda Package, I launched a Recommendation on Interoperability of Electronic Health Records. Why? Because there is a lack of communication between the electronic systems that are in place and this needs to be seen to. The Large Scale Pilot epSOS, on Patient summaries and ePrescription. 12 Ministries of Health participate. The key objective of both initiatives is to enable eHealth systems to communicate across national borders. This would ensure that if we need care while abroad, the health professional treating us can quickly access basic yet vital information about our health status, in his own language, provided by the home doctor and hospital, in full respect of the legislation on protection of personal health data. There will be interoperability while preserving privacy.
I need broadband for all of this. Today, it is all about implementing eHealth. The technology is ready but it has to be put into place. We need the connections so that elderly people can be well monitored in their homes and be in direct contact with their doctors without having to move.
We recently adopted a Communication on 'Telemedicine for the benefit of patients, healthcare systems and society'. Here we aim to facilitate patient access to secure and high quality healthcare, even in remote areas, through telemedicine services. Telemedicine can provide important responses to the challenges healthcare systems are facing today by reducing waiting lists, by enabling teleradiology services which can be performed at distance, with telemonitoring and by optimising the use of resources. I believe that implementing the proposals in this Communication should be a key priority in the years to come because making eHealth a reality for all Europeans will help save lives.
Audiovisual Media Services Directive
The "Audiovisual Services without Frontiers" Directive – adopted in December 2007.and to be transposed by the end of 2009 – covers both traditional television broadcasting and new on-demand services, which are subject to lighter regulation. It will result in more choice for consumers. At the same time it upholds and further develops core societal values, from protecting minors to ensuring the right to information, including accessible services for people with hearing or visual impairments, and promoting cultural diversity. The great wealth of Europeans is their cultural diversity. We have, for the first time the possibility to make this culture travel.
The current MEDIA programme includes many activities that have a positive impact for consumers. In particular the programme supports a Europe-wide cinema network that brings award winning European films to cinemas in every single Member State; this gives consumers a real choice and the chance to see films from different European countries. Out of 10 films that travel outside their home country in Europe, 9 do so with the help of MEDIA.
This action also exists under MEDIA International a test action bringing additional choice to consumers to see films from third countries!
Europeana – European digital library
Speaking of culture, I am proud to announce that EUROPEANA, the European digital library, will be officially launched on the 20th of November 2008, providing European citizens with a direct, multilingual access to our rich cultural heritage. Two million digitised objects will be accessible at the launch: including film material, photos, paintings, audio, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers and archival documents from Europe’s museums, archives and libraries. By 2010, EUROPEANA will be a full service with 10million accessible digital items. It will also be a platform where the citizen can participate in the cultural life of his or her country and of Europe.
User empowerment – i2010 mid-term review, User Guide in the digital environment, .eu
The Internet is now part of everyday life. One out of two Europeans is a regular user of the Internet. While buying products or services online becomes one of the top activities after searching, emails and watching news, consumer confidence in eCommerce is not growing as much as expected.
This points to one clear direction: We have to work more on user empowerment which is a crucial factor for the growth of the digital economy.
In a web 2.0 era, user empowerment can help ensure that the so called "invisible hand" stimulates competition. It may even transform itself into a digital fist by hitting market imperfections caused by overly restrictive business models.
Work is currently ongoing in the Commission – in Commissioner Kuneva's and my department – on an online guide aiming at explaining to users the rights that are provided to them by the EU legislation in the digital environment. Thanks to this guide, the users will also know how or where to seek redress. In a number of situations this could involve referring users to their relevant national consumer associations represented here today and I hope that this can trigger some further knowledge-sharing.
Another initiative, in order to provide Europeans with their own identity on the Internet, we have created the .eu Top Level Domain. To date, about three million .eu addresses have been registered by consumers, organisations and businesses in the EU. This is an amazing success.
We will go one step further. Already next year, we want to give everybody the opportunity to use their specific script when typing in an address under .eu, be it Greek, Cyrillic or with the German umlauts. We are adapting to cultural diversity.
As you may know, the Commission has been working since some time now on the future framework for Content Online. The discussions so far have revealed, once again, the complexity of the matter which is, more often than not, governed by very ideological positions of one or the other side.
I believe that, at this point in time, it will be difficult to strike the right balance. I believe also that it is a mistake, committed in many Member States and also often at EU level, to see issues such as piracy, access to content, DRM, private copying and levies as issues that require a "deal" between two camps only. A third camp is regularly missing in these debates: the consumer.
I therefore intend to relaunch the "Content Online" debate in 2009 with a clear focus on the consumer in our single market. I believe that Europe has an enormous cultural diversity from which consumers across Europe and also in third countries could benefit. We have a very strong TV and Internet industry. Together with the telecoms, they have the technological means to make access to content more attractive for consumers. We need to bring both aspects together and develop a true single market for content, without unjustified barriers and unnecessary fragmentation. Sometimes this may require us to think out of the box and to leave traditional paradigms behind. You can count on me to start in 2009 an interesting debate on "Content Online in a Single Market for Consumers."
Further steps down the path of user empowerment include implementing the eInclusion initiative dedicated to disabled and elderly people; launching the Safer Internet 2009-2013 for the protection of minors and the fight against illegal content; responding to the challenges of privacy stemming from new converging ubiquitous services with a forthcoming Recommendation on RFID technologies and pursuing the goal of the "content online" initiative. We have looked at RFID in time for it to be approached in the best way. Thank you to the BEUC for intervening on this.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Let me stress again how important your support on all these issues is to me. I will always take consumer interests to heart and give them utmost consideration because the single market of the Information society is for all our citizens and can only be built with their and your support.
Thank you for your attention.