Ireland: Update For Operators: ComReg Strategy Statement 2019-2021 Consultation

Last Updated: 18 March 2019
Article by Helen Kelly and Kate McKenna

ComReg has recently published a draft Strategy Statement for Electronic Communications Services for 2019 – 2021 and is seeking input from stakeholders on ComReg's vision for the sector which is stated to take into account the aims of the European Commission's Digital Single Market agenda1

The Strategy Statement represents ComReg's first review of the economic and legal framework since its Five Year Strategy Statement was published in 2017, outlines the trends and challenges faced by the industry and its key strategic intentions for this period.  The deadline for input is 25 March 2019 and Matheson is carefully considering the draft Strategy Statement and its impacts on the telecommunications markets. 

ComReg's strategic intentions remain unchanged and the Strategy Statement comments on the work done so far and expands upon goals for the 2019 – 2021 period.  Broadly speaking, ComReg's goals are similar to that of its UK counterpart, Ofcom, which has 2019 / 2020 goals focussed on the promotion of competition, improving consumer quality and protecting consumers from harm. 

Operators should consider this consultation an opportunity to potentially influence how ComReg will engage with the industry and to have its views placed on the public record (such submissions will likely be published). Below, we set out the trends and challenges identified by ComReg and a summary of the key strategic intentions set out in the Strategy Statement. 

TRENDS AND CHALLENGES

The Strategy Statement sets out the five principal trends and challenges identified by ComReg:

  • Different end-user experiences: ComReg notes that accessibility and connectivity have not evolved uniformly (due to age and geographic factors) and the experience of end-users has not always kept pace with changes in expectations, in particular in relation to the rapid growth in mobile technology usage (forecasted to grow 32% per annum until 2021); 
  • Expanding set of telecommunications markets: ComReg is looking at 'Over-The-Top' services (i.e. services delivered by the internet or online such as Netflix, Skype, WhatsApp etc.) which are currently only regulated to a very limited degree. The upcoming European Electronic Communications Code ("EECC") will revise the existing framework and regulate these to a greater extent and ComReg will play a role in the framing of the Irish legislation. 
  • Evolution of fixed and mobile networks: ComReg notes the recent investments by operators in (eir, Siro and the National Broadband Plan), the future investments needed in technologies such as 5G and how this should be rolled out in Ireland. 
  • Connectivity and Internet of Things: ComReg notes how Ireland is uniquely positioned as a global leader in the development and deployment of Internet of Things (i.e. connected objects / devices) through the 'Test and Trial' licensing system. The 'Test and Trial' regime is inexpensive and allows for practical research using Ireland's radio spectrum.  
  • Changing regulatory framework: ComReg notes the upcoming EECC and how it is engaging with the Department and beginning its preparatory work for implementation. 

KEY STRATEGIC INTENTIONS

(a) Setting the Rules for Effective Competition

ComReg notes the levels of competition in the fixed and mobile markets and its goals to ensure strong competition and quality of choice of providers at both a wholesale and retail level. To achieve this, ComReg states it will (among other measures):

  • Monitoring: Further develop its market monitoring functions and enhance its collection and analysis of demand-side and supply side market data (including studying ex-post market investigation powers in other jurisdictions); 
  • Market Review: Commence reviews of the Retail Access Markets, Fixed Access and Call Origination markets, the Wholesale broadcasting transmission and distribution markets; 
  • Relationship with eir: Oversee the implementation of Eir's new vertically integrated structure (further to a ComReg / eir settlement agreement) and engage with the industry in relation to access to Eir's network; 
  • Broadband Deployment: Engage with EU regulators on the preparation of guidelines to further reduce the cost of deploying broadband including in relation to co-investment arrangements (in addition to the 2016 Regulations governing this space);
  • Spectrum: Develop and finalise the multi-band award proposals for the release of spectrum rights for the provision of wireless broadband (both mobile and fixed broadband) services, conclude the 400 MHz band rights of use consultation and take the necessary measures to enable the deployment of Machine to Machine technologies in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequency bands (further to the spectrum award designs recently implemented). 

(b) Protecting and Informing Consumers

ComReg notes the high level of customer complaints and queries received and its strategic intent to prepare customers for contracting with operators (such as its recent Code of Practice for Complaint Handling), ensure seamless switching and protecting vulnerable users. To achieve this, ComReg states it will (among other measures): 

  • Research: Further deepen its research on consumer experiences / behaviour by collaborating with experts (such as the ESRI);
  • Review: Conduct a review of: (i) disability accessibility statement to ensure disabled end-users' needs are being met and (ii) 'bill shock' among consumers (which drive large numbers of complaints to ComReg); and
  • Monitoring: Continue monitoring of net neutrality developments, roaming obligations and operators' compliance with complaint handling obligations. 

(c) Creating the Conditions for Investment

One of the EECC's key objectives is the promotion of and access to high capacity networks and ComReg anticipates assisting this by: 

  • Facilitating Commercial Investment: ComReg has outlined it intends to use its SMP regulatory powers to ensure supply of wholesale inputs where appropriate, set prices that allow an adequate return on investment and effectively managing the radio spectrum to allow for this. 
  • Creating Regulatory Incentives to Invest: ComReg has outlined it intends to continue improving connectivity in Ireland, including through the use of coverage and/or rollout obligations to ensure the efficient use of radio spectrum and collaboration mechanisms (where appropriate). 
  • Assisting Policymakers:  ComReg outlines that its strategy to assist policymakers to design interventions that complement market realities (e.g. National Broadband Plan).

(d) Enforcement and Compliance

ComReg's continued strategy to ensure compliance is focussed on:

  • Implementing a 'culture of compliance' through engagement and dialogue with operators 
  • Targetted compliance and enforcement focussing on: (i) seriousness of the breach (and impact on competition and consumers, (ii) the size of the markets, (iii) the duration of the breach and (iv) previous history of similar breaches.  
  • Effective deterrence through continuing to advocate for (i) civil enforcement powers i.e. administrative sanctions, (ii) increased maximum penalties for criminal offences and (iii) standardised powers across all regulatory bodies in Ireland. 

(e) Being an Effective Regulator

ComReg is continuing its strategy to become an innovative and effective regulator through market intelligence and data gathering / analysis, engagement with stakeholders (domestic and international) and through its people and internal processes.

Footnote

1 ComReg's vision for the sector is that "consumers and businesses in Ireland have affordable, high-quality, and widespread access to communications services and applications that support their social and economic needs". 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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