The concept and justification of universal services

The ‘Citizens’ Rights’ Directive aims to ensure the availability throughout the Union of good-quality electronic communications services. Before analyzing the relevant provisions in detail, it is important to understand the origin and rationale of universal service obligations.

During the liberalization of the EU telecommunications sector in 1998, policy-makers agreed to ensure a set of basic telecommunication services, called ‘universal services’, which were to be available to all, even if the market did not provide for this. The concept of universal (or general interest) services has evolved over time, following technological changes and demographic trends. In 2000, the European Commission defined universal services ‘as the minimum set of services of specified quality to which all users and consumers, have access in the light of specific national conditions, at an affordable price’.[1] For consumers universal services provide ‘a guarantee of universal access, high quality and affordability’ of these services.[2]

In turn, the ‘universality’ of certain services is typically justified by economic and by social rationales. The first kind ofjustification is of an economic nature and is often based on the existence of strong positive externalities, whereby the convenience to use a service increases with the total number of users. For example, communication services become more attractive the more people are using them. Companies benefit from the ability to contact an enlarged pool of potential customers and interact with them, thereby increasing their sales opportunities; consumers, on the other hand, benefit from the ability to communicate with each other to compare products across several firms. Such benefits make a strong case for supporting the diffusion of such services, because this generates increasing returns for all users.

The second justification is a social one, and is founded on equity considerations. Universal services are, for example, seen as a means to combat social exclusion, and to ensure access to essential services for disadvantaged individuals.[3] Groups that are commonly cited as benefiting from universal services include disabled people, the elderly, low-income consumers, and those who live in rural areas.

  • [1] See the Communication from the European Commission on Services of General Interest inEurope, COM(2000) 580 final, 20.9.2000, p. 16.
  • [2] See the Communication from the European Commission on Services of General Interest inEurope, COM(2000) 580 final, 20.9.2000, p. 7.
  • [3] On the general universal rights, see D. Charles-Le Bihan, ‘Services d’interet economiquegeneral et valeurs communes’, (2008) 519 Revue du Marche commun et de VUnion europeenne,pp. 356-60.
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