Portugal: Telecoms bill foresees new steps to ensure access to universal service

Draft legislation on electronic communications now before Portugal’s parliament provides for the adoption of “necessary measures” so that consumers with low incomes have access to the universal service, which may include the designation of various providers of this service.

These are among the new elements in the bill that transposes the European Union directive to establish the EU’s Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and which was approved by Portugal’s Council of Ministers on 1 April. It was sent to parliament on 9 April.

“Universal service consists of the minimum set of provisions” of communications services, which “at an affordable price, must be available, within the national territory, to all consumers, depending on specific national conditions whenever there is a risk of social exclusion resulting from the lack of such access, which prevents citizens from fully participating” in the social and economic life of society,” the text reads.

It goes on to state that the national regulatory authority (‘NRA’) “in coordination with other competent entities, must monitor the evolution and level of retail prices practised in the market … taking into account, in particular, national prices and the income of national consumers.”

However, if “in the light of the information gathered” by the regulator “it is found that, in the light of national conditions, the prices charged in the market do not allow consumers on low incomes or with special social needs to have access to the planned services … the Government shall, on its own initiative or upon a proposal from the NRA, adopt the necessary measures to ensure that these consumers can afford the appropriate broadband internet access service and voice communication services at least at a fixed location.”

To this end, Portugal’s government may “ensure that such consumers are supported for electronic communications purposes” or “require the providers of such services to offer … tariff options or packages for the services envisaged” with basic functionalities that differ from those offered under normal commercial conditions, or to apply common tariffs, “including geographic averaging, throughout the territory.”

If the imposition of these obligations on operators may “demonstrably” constitute “an excessive administrative or financial burden for the state or for these providers, the Government may, exceptionally, decide to impose the obligation to offer these options or tariff packages only on companies” designated to provide universal service, the bill states. 

It makes clear that it is up to the government to designate those companies that must meet universal service obligations, the selection of which “must be made through an effective, objective, transparent, proportionate, non-discriminatory procedure that ensures, from the outset, that all companies can be selected.”

According to the bills, universal service providers must at an affordable cost “adopt adequate measures to ensure that voice communications services and the adequate broadband internet access service are not disconnected without justification” as well as ensuring “that the end-user is able to maintain the number that he has been assigned for access to the voice communications service for an adequate period of time.”

To minimise the risks arising from the non-payment of bills, providers may impose as a condition for the conclusion of a contract pre-payment “on the basis of an affordable prepaid individual unit, provided that this does not constitute an obstacle to the access of eligible consumers to the minimum set of connectivity services.”

The law also provides that whenever there is more than one company providing the universal service “it must be ensured that the beneficiaries of the services can choose” the operator that offers the tariffs that correspond to their needs, unless this is not possible.”

As for the mechanism for financing the universal service, this may involve compensation from public funds or a sharing of the cost between companies that offer electronic communications networks and services in the country, or both.

“Once the calculation of the net costs of the universal service obligations has been carried out and the NRA concludes that the respective provider is subject to an excessive burden, the Government shall promote the adequate compensation through one or both” of those mechanisms, the bills states.

The universal service must, it adds, incluce the availability, at an affordable price and with a specified quality, of “an adequate broadband internet access service at a fixed location” and “voice communications services, including the underlying connection, at a fixed location.”

It also includes “specific measures for consumers with disabilities, with the aim of ensuring equivalent access to the services that, within the scope of the universal service, are available to other users.”

In the scope of the universal service, access to all or some of the services mentioned may be included, “provided at a non-fixed location, when it is concluded that it is necessary.”

The law provides that, at the request of eligible consumers, the connection “may be limited solely to the support of voice communication services.”

In addition, the government may extend the scope of universal service availability and access “to end-users who are micro-enterprises, small and medium-sized enterprises and non-profit organisations, provided that they meet the relevant conditions.”