MICHEL VAN BELLINGHEN tells IIC Newsletter interactions with BEREC stakeholders has been fascinating.
IIC NEWSLETTER: What were the highlights of your year as Chair of BEREC? Do you see the role of BEREC expanding in the future?
MICHEL VAN BELLINGHEN: During my Chairmanship of BEREC, I put particular emphasis on three aspects: the first is to promote full connectivity, and by doing so, incentivize investments and leadership in Europe in 5G and fiber across the communications sector. The second is to make sure that BEREC is widely acknowledged as a trustworthy partner for the EU institutions in the backdrop of the European digital policy. And the third is to upskill our organization, in order to ensure it’s fit for the digital age and the related challenges of the technology’s march.
A particular highlight for me was the contribution we managed to provide towards the legislative discussions related to the Digital Markets Act. Throughout 2021, BEREC issued a number of Opinions and Reports which helped in laying the groundwork for an appropriate regulatory framework, which I presented during meetings with several Members of the European Parliament. In addition to BEREC’s work on the DMA, we also provided our advice to the co-legislators and the European Commission on a number of other initiatives, such as the Roaming Regulation, the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive, the Access Recommendation, the 5G Toolbox and the NIS2.0 Directive.
I have also very much appreciated the engagement with our stakeholders, the telecom companies, and other partner regulatory authorities and networks. This interaction is very important to us and our work. The autumn of 2021 allowed us to travel again and meet in person, after a long time of meeting virtually. We used this momentum to ensure ample discussion with other regulatory bodies and networks. I was very glad that I was able to co-host a high-level summit, in September, with other regulatory networks to discuss the main challenges deriving from ensuring connectivity in a digital world, while at the same time exploring how to address these challenges through regulatory cooperation. One month later, in October, we welcomed a high number of industry-players during BEREC’s yearly Stakeholder Forum in Brussels.
As for BEREC’s role in the future, we see that more and more that electronic communications networks are a part of a growing ecosystem of services that are interlinked and affect one another. BEREC has already published a few reports on this matter and is currently working on a more extensive analysis.
In light of the digital transformation, it is timely to reflect on whether we are on the right track to promote full end-to-end connectivity and whether the execution of BEREC’s mandate is still sufficient to effectively address the regulatory challenges in the digital domain. This topic is something that is definitely on our agenda. In light of the evaluation of the BEREC Regulation in 2023 and the European Electronic Communications Code in 2025, we are also engaging with the European Commission on this very topic.
IN: You talked passionately at last year’s IIC Annual Conference about the steps needed to close the digital divide. What progress so far do you think is being made in Europe, and in Belgium in particular? What are the best initiatives you’ve seen?
MVB: There is a general agreement pandemic has had a major impact on the digital divide, both in a positive as well as in a negative way. In the autumn of 2021, BEREC published a Study regarding post-COVID measures to close the digital divide. The aim of the study is to help NRAs in designing the right conditions to improve digital inclusion for all citizens. It analyses the experience gained during the COVID-19 crisis and lists a series of specific recommendations for NRAs and other general recommendations in which regulators can cooperate with other stakeholders to jointly address the issue of digital divides. I observed that 2021 was marked by setting new connectivity ambitions, flanked by new initiatives and (semi-)public funding made available through EU recovery programs to speed up the roll-out of high connectivity networks throughout Europe. In its ‘Digital Policy Programme’, the European Commission set out that by 2030, all EU households should have gigabit connectivity (everywhere, also in rural and remote areas) and all populated areas should have 5G coverage. As a result of the sudden surge for access to connectivity during the pandemic, I have witnessed an unprecedented level of political willingness to provide the right incentives and financial aid to provide the conditions for deploying connectivity everywhere to everyone. It’s difficult to take stock now, but we know that some other relevant regulatory developments are still on their way, such as the review of the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive, with high expectations to further facilitate the roll-out of networks. The coming year should provide more clarity on whether the gap in bridging the digital divide has further decreased.
IN: As a telecoms regulator, are you sympathetic to the current arguments from telecoms companies that they need to allowed to consolidate in order to fund the building of new networks? Do you think European regulators have struck the right balance between competition and investment? What contribution should ‘OTTs’ make, if any?
MVB: The proposal of some telecom operators for a contribution of OTTs to the investment of networks is not new. However in light of the increasing regulatory attention towards digital platforms in the past years, it has become topical again, and last February, it ended up on the political agenda here in Europe.
Looking at the skewed relationship in terms of revenues between telcos and large platforms, it’s a valid discussion to rethink the system and allow for a fair and proportionate contribution by big platforms to speed up the roll-out of gigabit networks. Networks are the enablers of the digital society. So, I’m not against the idea. That said, it’s a decision you cannot take overnight.
Any sort of contributive mechanism should in the first place serve the public interest and may not lead to a simple transfer of money to the shareholders of the operators. Prior to imposing any such a measure, major principles of the implementation should be thoroughly assessed, in dialogue with the concerned industry actors: on whom to impose any obligation? Based on which thresholds and criteria? How to determine the contributions of any eligible platforms? How and where the contributions should be spent? Etc. The impact should be assessed based on different implementation scenarios and assumptions with respect to the reactions of stakeholders. I also think that a solid enforcement mechanism should be in place to verify whether any received contribution will be used for the right purposes by each beneficiary.
IN: To conclude, although this might be a good idea at first glance, there still seem to be too many open questions that should be addressed through an impact assessment before jumping to any political decisions. What is your initial response to the findings of the IoT inquiry? Do you think more needs to be done to constrain large platforms and reduce barriers to entry? Are IoT applications at risk from growing demands for ‘data sovereignty’?
MVB: In the summer of 2020, Executive Vice-President Vestager opened a sector inquiry into the ‘Internet of Things’ for consumer-related products, with the aim to understand and identify potential competition issues around IoT. The European Commission opened the sectors inquiry as it believed that the market was not working as well as it should. Through the IoT inquiry, they wanted to scrutinize whether breaches of the competition rules could be a contributory factor, as it was suspected that some platforms would be restricting data access and interoperability or engaging in self-preferencing and practices linked to the use of proprietary standards. The inquiry was timely. This is a market with high barriers to entry, few vertically integrated players and concerns about access to data, interoperability or exclusivity practices amongst others. In January, the Commission issued its final report which identifies potential competition concerns for IoT related products and services in the European Union. The main issues that were identified relate to exclusivity and tying of products and services as well as the extensive access to data flows and the lack of interoperability and common standards in the consumer IoT sector. It is expected that the Digital Markets Act, which is currently in the final-phase discussions among legislators, will address a number of problems that were uncovered by the sector investigation: the DMA will force digital gatekeepers to keep the digital markets open by sharing data and allowing access to platforms.
IN: Many organisations have expressed concern at the different visions of the future internet emerging in some parts of the world, and the possible emergence of the ‘bifurcated internet’? Are you optimistic about the role of the open internet and its ecosystem in the future, and what steps need to be taken to preserve it?
MVB: Throughout my career in the domain of telecoms regulation, I have observed that the current multi-stakeholder driven and bottom-up approach, managed by ICANN, towards the government of the Internet, has been a key success factor for the incredibly rapid proliferation of the Internet worldwide.
In view of the enormous impact, economically, socially, politically and militarily, the governance of the Internet and the surrounding policy that comes with it, can no longer be seen separately from general public policy. It’s become more and more clear that several countries want to impose direct control over it. The risk has greatly increased that other geopolitical regions such as Russia in particular and to a lesser extent China opt for their own ‘domain name space’ and alternative addressing systems (outside the system managed by ICANN), which will imply a splinternet. In that light, I have two concerns: while the Internet will continue to evolve, we, collectively, have to make sure it doesn’t erode into a large number of limited domains, sovereign verticals, or whatever we want to call it. My secondary concern is maintaining openness, while increasing trustworthiness and security.
I remain a firm proponent of multilateralism – the openness of the Internet has brought numerous benefits to citizens worldwide and this can only be continued by explaining the advantages of the multilateral approach within the existing structures.
One other thing: when it comes to the recent banning of Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik by our ISPs and platforms in Europe, we have to draw a clear line. Spreading disinformation and war propaganda are not free speech.
- Van Bellinghen is Chairperson of BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication) 2021; Chairman of the Council, Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT).
- This interview was first published in the IIC Newsletter.