EU telecoms regulation
The digital commissioner proposes a single market to speed up Europe
EUROPE wasn't always a digital laggard.
Its telecoms operators were far quicker than America's to build 3G mobile-telecoms networks.
Nokia once made the world's coolest mobile phones.
But the old continent has fallen behind. Only a quarter of the European Union's people have access to new 4G networks, according to the European Commission.
In America a single company, Verizon, reaches nine out of ten.
South Korea's broadband speeds leave Europe standing.
Apple and Samsung make today's palmfuls of desire.
Neelie Kroes, the commissioner overseeing Europe's digital agenda, thinks crisper connectivity would be a boon not just for the EU's telecoms industry and its consumers but for the union's entire economy, from transport to health care.
On September 11th Ms Kroes published a plan, in the shape of a draft regulation, to bring Europe up to speed.
The regulation is subject to approval by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Ms Kroes proposes a single market in an industry that still runs on national lines.
Plenty of operators serve several EU countries.
But none operates in more than half of the 28 states, each of which has its own regulator and rules.
The prices that network owners may charge competitors to rent copper wires vary by a factor of three.
Spectrum prices for 4G vary by a factor of 50.
Retail prices differ widely too.
Europeans pay extra to make calls to other EU countries or to use their phones abroad.
Many travellers turn off data roaming to avoid being stung.
The commissioner wants to make it easier for telecoms operators to enter new markets.
A license in one country should be good in all.
Future allocations of spectrum should be standardised,to make a pan-European business easier to plan.
Regulators should also facilitate sharing and trading of spectrum.
But the idea is not to favour entry regardless of all else.
To encourage investment in fast fibre-optic broadband,Ms Kroes recommends stabilising the prices that incumbent operators can charge entrants for renting older, slower copper wires.
If fees are too low, entrants will undercut the whizzy new networks.
For consumers, the most eye-catching proposal is to scrap roaming fees, as Ms Kroes has long wanted to do.
Operators will be encouraged to allow them to roam like at home—paying nothing extra for data or calls when they are abroad.
Companies with such deals will escape another rule, obliging them to let customers use another provider when they travel.
Calls from home to other EU countries will be charged at domestic rates.
Ms Kroes also says she will protect net neutrality.
By this she means banning operators from blocking services, as some mobile firms do to internet voice calls, for example.
But she will allow operators to charge more for better service, such as higher speed.
This is also a thorny subject in America:
lawyers for Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission, a regulator, had a preliminary skirmish in court this week.
Consumers will doubtless be delighted at not having to fork out for checking e-mail or consulting online maps whenever they cross a border.
Mobile operators are grumbling at that. Incumbent broadband firms should like the copper-price idea.
Ms Kroes is right that Europe's telecoms markets are too fragmented.
But pan-European licensing may not help much.
Most operators and analysts think that mergers inside borders are a likelier route.
Several deals have been agreed or mooted in recent months, notably in Germany where, if regulators allow Telefónica of Spain to buy Dutch-owned e-Plus, the number of mobile operators will be reduced from four to three.
In more concentrated markets Europe's operators would probably be more profitable.
That, they argue, would give them the incentive to build the infrastructure Europe's politicians demand.
The snag is that this might mean higher prices, too: Americans may have faster networks, but they pay a lot more.
On that, Europe's regulators are likely to be much less keen.