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Liberalization and Universal Services

Since the 1980s the telecommunications sector, originally in the hands of national monopolies, has been gradually liberalized leading to worldwide competition and lower prices. This privatization process caused a change in the welfare state paradigm in the European Union giving the private sector an important role in providing consumers with essential services.[1] As a consequence, the citizen’s right to public services turned into a ‘consumer-citizen’ right.[2]

The regulation of electronic communications in the EU has, to a large extent, dealt with the supply side of the market, concentrating on market entry, licensing, and the use of the network. Now, with consumer-focused regulation, the emphasis has turned to the demand side, where two key problems are access to services, and prevention of unfair business practices.[3] How is the EU addressing these issues? Can the universal services obligations in the EU telecommunication framework be interpreted as a sign of a new emphasis on the citizen-consumer, and to what extent do they contribute to establishing a social model in the EU?

The next subsections intend to answer these questions, by giving an overview of the EU legal framework, and of its historic development.

  • [1] On the link between European social citizenship and services of general economic interest, seeH.-W Micklitz, ‘Universal Services: Nucleus for a Social European Private Law’, EUI WP Law 2009/12, pp. 12 et seq.
  • [2] Access to essential services such as telecommunications has become a novel subject of consumer law; see P Rott, ‘Consumer and Services of General Interest: Is EC Consumer Law theFuture?’, (2007) 30 J. Consumer Policy, p. 53; T. Prosser, The Limits of Competition Law: Markets andPublic Services (Oxford: OUP, 2005), pp. 162-3; see also the EU study on consumer law and theinformation society, SANCO, 2006.
  • [3] See the OECD Report, Enhancing Competition in Telecommunications: Protecting and EmpoweringConsumers (Paris: OECD, 2008), pp. 9-32; T. Wilhelmsson, ‘Services of General Economic Interestand European Private Law’, in E.F. Ricket & T. Telfer (eds), International Perspectives on Consumers’Access to Justice (Oxford: OUP, 2008), pp. 149 et seq.
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