Untangling the telecoms lines

Untangling the telecoms linesPolitical pressures within the EU and abroad, have forced the European Commission to take a long hard look at telecoms approvals. A radical shake-up, with a switch to self-certification by 1999 look likely to result. Ralph Peterson reports
Twenty years ago ‘telecoms’ meant a bakelite thing with a dial. Today it is an integral part of all the most talked about technology, and it has become difficult to define exactly what ‘telecoms’ means. The industry is developing so fast that, even if you tried to make a list of telecoms equipment types, three new items would have been invented before you finished.
Such is the complexity of telecoms technology and its markets, the European Commission has recognised its importance by dedicating an entire Directorate General (XIII) to this one sector. And well it might, for there is a significant list of political problems which pertain to this single technology area.
First up is the proliferation of technology relating to the internet. We are no longer dealing simply with telephones and faxes – computers and televisions could now be telecoms products too.
Second is the huge growth in telecoms, driven mostly by mobile communications. This is the market economy working at its best (or worst – but certainly quickest). Europe has the lead in mobile communications and this has created both wealth and jobs on an unprecedented scale, but this lead is threatened by the stringent regulation that is a European tradition. There is a real danger that the much less regulated economies of North America and Asia will decimate Europe’s advantage in this sector.
Third on the Commission’s list is trade. The world’s powers have realised that trade barriers work both ways, and that everyone’s economy is improved by eradicating them. First with GATT (general agreement on trade and tariffs) and now with the WTO (World Trade Organisation), free trade is the order of the day.
Removing trade barriers does not mean merely encouraging customs officials to wave through dodgy hardware from eastern sweatshops. There is a lengthy negotiation process where the technical and legal requirements placed on products in different countries are bargained with, until acceptable common ground is reached. The EU is currently negotiating mutual recognition agreements (MRA) on product conformity assessment with Australia, the US, Canada and Japan, with many other countries on the starting blocks.
When the EU and the US sat down to talk about trade, each had an issue searing the ink off their agenda. The EU wanted the US to make its rules on pharmaceuticals less austere, giving better access to European drugs companies. The US wanted Europe to do something about its largely nationalised and over-regulated telecoms regime, to allow access for US phone and high technology companies. There are all sorts of other issues contained within the US/EU MRA, but it was the agreement to free up the European telecoms market, and the US drugs rules, which finally saw progress being made.
The upshot of all this is a radical shake-up of European telecoms regulations, which will not just make life easier for US companies, but also EU manufacturers. A European Directive came into force at the beginning of this year, effectively opening the telecoms market to all comers (until this year, the UK was unique in having a privatised telecoms sector). The next stage is to address the over-burdensome regulations on equipment makers. The Commission has produced a second draft of a directive which will make telecoms approvals much simpler.
It was initially dubbed the Connected Telecoms Equipment (CTE) Directive, but recently renamed the Radio and Telecoms Terminal Equipment (RTTE) Directive. The name change indicates the problems the Commission is having in one aspect of telecoms regulation – exactly how do we define telecoms equipment these days? The most fundamental change proposed by the Commission is a move from third party type-testing to a form of self-certification similar to that used in the Low Voltage (electrical safety) and EMC Directives.
Under the new regime, a manufacturer of radio or telecoms products will have to meet some essential requirements, and demonstrate via a declaration of conformity that they have done so. Essential Requirements The safety requirements of the LVD (73/23/EEC) The requirements of the EMC Directive (89/336/EEC). Requirements that ensure the protection of the public telecoms networks. Radio equipment will have to use the allocated frequency spectrum in a way which avoids interference. Some types of telecoms equipment will need to satisfy interworking requirements. There are also requirements covering privacy, fraud, access to emergency services, and features for the disabled.
Like other self-certification directives, conformity with the RTTE will usually be shown using harmonised standards. A form of harmonised standard, the Common Technical Regulation (CTR) already exists as part of the type-approval regime, and it is likely that these may continue to be used. However, they are a cumbersome document, requiring official sanction from two committees with the European Commission. It is likely that new telecoms standards will be produced by streamlined process.
One of the major problems with the existing approvals is that standards have taken so long to produce (most analogue telecoms products are not covered by CTRs under the existing Telecoms Terminal Equipment (TTE) Directive seven years after the regulations came into force). The European Commission has therefore proposed an alternative route where a manufacturer produces a justification (a technical construction file) that his products comply. This has been the subject of some controversy because the Commission has suggested that manufacturers do this with the advice of Notified Bodies, the organisations who currently vet type-test results. The wording of the draft directive is confusing, and some Notified Bodies have expressed reservations about getting involved on such a woolly basis.
Manufacturers submit their technical files to Notified Bodies which have four weeks to offer an opinion. The Commission seems to be saying that if an opinion in not given within four weeks, a manufacturer may place his product on the market anyway. Notified Bodies are clearly worried about the liability implications if they are slow in telling a manufacturer about an unsatisfactory product, and some have said that they will simply not take on the job under these conditions.
The first draft of this new directive counterbalanced the cushy ride it was giving manufacturers in conformity assessment, by imposing tough liability measures, making it easier for people to sue telecoms manufacturers if their product was faulty. However, there was uproar in the telecoms industry that they should have tougher liability laws than any other sector and so this section has been dropped in the latest draft.
Since the first steps in 1986 to make telecoms approvals pan-European, regulation of telecoms products has been increasingly confusing for manufacturers. These latest moves, aimed at making telecoms approvals international, look like making things simple again, although the first few years will undoubtedly be fraught.
The Commission has set itself the target of July 1999 to bring this directive into force. This ties in with the timetable for EU/US mutual recognition, but looks awfully ambitious given the size of the change it will impose on the telecoms industry.

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