20 April 2005


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Commission sues Malta in telecoms proceedings

Matthew Vella

The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against ten EU Member States, amongst them Malta, to remedy infringements of EU rules on electronic communications including the right for consumers to retain their mobile number after switching service providers.
But the Malta Communications Authority is not aware that any formal requests for portability by subscribers have been denied.
The Commission points to defects in national laws, and incorrect practical application of EU rules, in Germany, Italy, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Finland.
The ten states have all been put on alert that they are not living up to the general agreed-upon standard for universal telecommunications service. Universal service, shorthand for consumer protection in the telecommunications industry, today includes not only the rights of citizens to have plain old telephone service, but also the right to keep a mobile number after a consumer switches service providers.
The Universal Service Directive sets out rules and principles designed to ensure that consumers continue to get a fair deal and can enjoy affordable access to the services they need across the whole of the Union.
The European commission began Thursday legal proceedings against the 10 member states for failing to give their regulators enough power to enforce the EU's line on telecommunications competition, and infringing EU laws designed to promote greater consumer choice in a market it said was worth EUR277bn (Lm120bn).
Failings included regulators not having the power to insist consumers can keep their mobile number when switching supplier.
Along with Latvia and Poland, the development of a competitive market in Malta will be held back because number portability, a key enabler of competition, has not been implemented in practice.
In comments to The Malta Financial and Business Times, the Malta Communications Authority said it has been working with operators since 2003 to ensure that the necessary network facilities and processes are in place so that number portability will be provided when requested by a subscriber, consulting “widely” on the subject and establishing a steering group to ensure the availability of number portability upon request.
“The right of a subscriber to request that he or she retains his number independently of the operator providing the service was put in place with the introduction of the new electronic communications legislative framework on the 14 September 2004,” Peter Gatt, chief of corporate services said.
Gatt said consumer rights to retaining the same telephone number when moving from one service provider to another are already enshrined in the Malta Communications Act but in view of the investment required by the service providers to meet this obligation, the authority has imposed an interim solution by July 2005 with full number portability being in place by 1 April 2006.
“Under the previous legislative framework operators where obliged to implement number portability only if one of the existing operators requested number portability from another operator. Operators considered full number portability as being too costly to implement and this was therefore never implemented, although a partial solution was put in place in the case of mobile telephony.”
Gatt said the MCA issued a decision on Number Portability on 31 March 2005 setting out the high level parameters for numbering portability as well as deadlines that operators have to comply with so as to make number portability available to subscribers.
“It is important to note that the decision issued by the MCA does not sanction the undertakings’ failure to provide numbering portability upon request in accordance with the new legal framework,” Gatt said.
The terms of the decision takes into consideration the fact that cost of numbering portability is unlikely to be recovered through charges for porting of numbers due to the size of the local market, making it “critical” that the implementation of the measure is undertaken “in the most cost effective manner in order to ensure efficient investment in infrastructure and maximise end user benefit.”
Gatt also said the decision took into consideration the facilitation through full number portability of the entry of prospective new operators in the market and a partial numbering portability solution, in both fixed and mobile telephony, while not providing all the benefits of numbering portability, that would still provide “valid end-user benefits and a valid contribution towards the removal of restrictions to competition.”
“The way forward for full number portability established by the MCA is a two-staged approach whereby an enhanced interim solution shall be implemented by July 2005 until full numbering portability implementation takes place by no later than 31 March 2006.
Gatt said that without prejudice to the authority’s powers to intervene at an earlier date, non-compliance with these time frames will trigger infringement proceedings by the authority, even if until that date no formal request for portability by a subscriber is made.
“This approach should ensure that full numbering portability is in place within the shortest possible time-frame and as close as possible to the expected roll out of services by new entrants thus ensuring the further development of a competitive market. Furthermore, it also ensures that in the interim an enhanced partial portability will provide additional benefits to those already experienced by the Maltese market.”
According to Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding, the ineffective implementation of these rules threatens the goal of building a competitive electronic communications sector within the EU, “which is vital to EU productivity and growth.”
The region also boasts one of the highest penetrations of mobile phones in the world. More than 379 million people subscribe to mobile phone operators in the region, setting the penetration at a stunning 83 percent.

matthew@newsworksltd.com



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