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EU mulls changes to telecoms 'universal service'

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The European Commission (EC) is to take a new look at "universal service" rules to see if they need updating for the internet age.

Universal service obligations ensure that basic fixed line phone services are made available at an affordable price for everyone. But there are concerns that the current rules, regulations and parameters that govern universal service might not be up to speed for the fast-changing digital world.

"Stakeholders [Governments, regulators, telcos etc]...generally agree that the concept and provision of universal service which safeguards access to basic but vital communications services for disadvantaged users does need to be updated for the internet age," said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding: "This year's review of the EU's electronic communications rules will give the opportunity to look at provision of universal service in an IP world."

Reding's comments follow an EU-wide consultation of the current universal service "safety net". The general view among those who responded to the consultation was that universal service still "works well" and that there is no need to extend it to cover mobile services or broadband.

The report found that punters already have affordable and available access to mobile communications within their home countries. As for broadband, while take-up is growing massively penetration levels are still relatively low. In both cases, the cost of extending universal service obligations to these services "would exceed benefits to users", said the report.

Said Reding: "This report reflects a broad stakeholder consensus that bringing mobile and high-speed internet services to users is best left to the market, except where structural problems such as geographical remoteness justify specific public investment to help bridge the broadband gap."

In March, UK regulator Ofcom ruled that high speed net access should not be part of a universal service obligation because it felt that the time wasn't right to impose such restrictions on telecoms providers.

Imposing universal service obligations for broadband "would be undesirable" at this time since the broadband market is "still developing", said Ofcom. ®

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