The signing of a Regional Roaming Agreement – expected in the autumn – will lead to a gradual fall in roaming costs for Belarusians travelling to other Eastern partner countries. However, the signing of this agreement, supported by the EU4Digital Initiative, is just the start, and much of its success will depend on the work of the signatory countries over the coming years, with independent regulation central to its effective implementation.
The agreement provides for a reduction in roaming tariffs for signatory countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) over the next few years. By the end of 2026, roaming prices in the Eastern partner countries should be reduced by as much as 87%.
During 2021, the governments of the signatory countries must amend the laws and regulations necessary to reduce the cost of roaming. Then, from the beginning of next year, the Agreement will enter into force, gradually allowing Belarusians to pay less for mobile roaming services.
However, for the full implementation of this agreement, all countries still have a lot of work to do.
In Belarus, the body responsible for the implementation of the agreement is the sectorial ministry, as at the moment there are no plans to establish a new distinct and autonomous institution following the EU model of a National Regulatory Authority (NRA). Nevertheless, the experts of the ministry have gained a lot of valuable know-how during the assessment of the EU electronic communication framework conducted under the EU4Digital programme, which will help the ministry in the decision-making process related to the obligations included in the Regional Roaming Agreement.
Regulator’s independence above all
According to Andrejs Dombrovskis, EU4Digital’s Telecom Rules stream leader, a well organised regulatory system, including the establishment of an independent national regulator, is the cornerstone for building a regulatory system that will ensure both free and fair competition among providers, and the empowerment and protection of service users.
“The regulator must be independent, not only from the market, but also has to carry out its activity regardless of the policy makers. This is an important element in ensuring an impartial decision-making process guaranteed by law,” explains Dombrovskis.
Dombrovskis says independent regulation is essential to balance the prospects for the provision of services by market participants and the interests of service users. Regulators should be empowered to impartially intervene in the event of market and consumer rights violations.
How can national authorities become independent?
Inga Popovici, chair of the Independent Regulators and Broadband Expert Working group (IRB EWG) of the Eastern Partnership Electronic Communications Regulators Network (EaPeReg), says EU4Digital has been providing considerable support to build capacity among Belarusian ministry experts.
“Our Belarusian colleagues have had a very active participation in the preparation of the deliverables under the EU4Digital programme and I hope that all the capacity building that is assured through the work of IRB EWG is very helpful for the ministry experts to implement the state programmes that are very ambitious in terms of connectivity,” says Popovici.
“The EU4Digital deliverables that were drawn up according to the EaP experts’ requirements are valuable guidelines for the assessment of relevant definitions, and thus they are also very useful in different stages of the regulator’s activity, be it a functionally distinct and autonomous authority, or the line ministry as in Belarus,”she adds.
Based on best EU practices, an independent regulator is the driving force behind predictable regulations that ensure a competitive environment and adequate protection of end-users’ rights.
“The independence of the national regulatory authority (NRA) is a key principle of the EU telecom framework. As an important promoter of competition on telecom (digital) markets, this regulator provides the right of choice to end users, which leads to more affordable prices. In addition, it protects and empowers the end consumer by controlling markets and making transparent decisions,” says Inga Popovici.
Which Eastern partner country can serve as an example for Belarus?
According to Andrejs Dombrovskis, the situation in the Eastern partner countries is not yet homogeneous or harmonised.
“All countries clearly understand the importance of ensuring regulatory independence. There are national regulatory authorities in four out of the six partner countries. Currently, in the remaining two, certain functions of a regulatory authority are performed by the relevant ministries, though not independently, and in one there are already established further plans to setup an independent regulatory authority.”
When asked about relevant examples for Belarus, Inga Popovici said the Georgian regulator (ComCom) could be taken as an example.
“The institutional and financial independence of the regulator is established by the Constitution of Georgia. In addition, the Georgian regulator is well empowered by the national law, which makes its regulations effective,”said the head of the IRB EWG.
Dr. Annegret Groebel, Director of International Relations/Postal Regulation at BnetzA, the German Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway, uses the example of her country to explain how the independence of national regulators is vital to the implementation of the legal framework.
“In order to fulfil their mandate, national regulatory authorities need to have the necessary powers and competencies, as well as the financial and personnel resources to deliver regulatory decisions of the highest quality. Finally, economic regulators must have the discretion to choose the most appropriate and proportionate regulatory measures, reaching the set of targets provided for by legislation,” said Groebel.
The representative of the German regulator is convinced that the independence of such state bodies allows participants to find equal conditions and get a real chance to take advantage of the opportunities of liberalised markets.
The EU4Digital Facility promotes key areas of the digital economy and society, in line with EU norms and practices. The Facility is implemented by a consortium led by EY, together with Action Global Communications and CEPS.
The goal of the EU4Digital Facility in the telecommunications area is to support topics such as work related to international roaming and the potential agreement on a common international roaming space among the six partner countries. It also helps in strengthening the independence of the National Regulatory Authorities for electronic communications, as well as supports making available spectrum resources for better availability and quality of mobile services.
The Regional Roaming Agreement (RRA) will ensure harmonisation of regulatory frameworks and substantial reduction of roaming prices among the six Eastern partner countries. This will enable the roaming clients of the communication networks to use a more accessible roaming service in the region. Based on the EU4Digital roaming study (2019), a reduction of more than 80% in the average price is expected.