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EU Says Governments Can’t Force Universe Mobile Broadband Coverage

Friday, June 19th, 2015 (10:49 am) - Score 398

Efforts by the Government to force UK mobile operators into offering universal coverage have been dealt a blow after the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that such a legally binding Universal Service Obligation (USO) cannot, under current EU rules, be forced upon providers.

The actual ruling is naturally a little bit more complex than our short introduction might suggest, with the specific caveat focusing on how such USOs would be funded. Never the less the result is that Governments could struggle to force a USO on mobile operators unless the rules are changed, although it should be noted that this ruling does not apply to fixed line providers (lucky BT).

CJEU Ruling

In the light of all the foregoing considerations, the answer to the first and second questions is that the Universal Service Directive must be interpreted as meaning that the special tariffs and the financing mechanism provided for in Articles 9 and 13(1)(b) of that directive respectively apply to internet subscription services requiring a connection to the internet at a fixed location, but not to mobile communication services, including internet subscription services provided by means of those mobile communication services.

If those services are made publicly available within the national territory as ‘additional mandatory services’ for the purposes of Article 32 of the Universal Service Directive, they cannot be financed, under national law, by a mechanism involving specific undertakings.

Readers might recall that the previous coalition Government last year attempted to push for a National Roaming agreement, which could have easily become a new Universal Service Obligation. On the surface it sounded like a good idea, although it had many pitfalls and was met with more than a little criticism.

In the end the mobile operators proposed to counter this proposal with one of their own (here), which saw Three UK, Vodafone, O2 and EE all commit to a £5bn project (most of that seems to come from their existing investment) that will extend geographic network coverage (voice and text) of the UK from 80% today to 90% by 2017. Sadly data (3G and 4G – Mobile Broadband) coverage will only be pushed from 69% to 85% over the same period.

However the new agreement also saw mobile operators call on the Government to tackle certain issues, such as the high access charges for private land, height limits on wireless masts and Ofcom’s proposed hike in their radio spectrum licence fees. But so far all of these aspects appear to be suffering some difficulty (here, here and here).

Strictly speaking the new commitment isn’t a USO in the traditional sense (100% coverage), although Ofcom did recently introduce a related licence variation that commits Three UK, EE, O2 and Vodafone to providing voice coverage across 90% of the United Kingdom’s landmass by the end of 2017 (here). No doubt all sides will now be keen to study the new ruling.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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