#EUhaveyoursay

"The Internet is the oxygen of our digital economy and society. We are more and more connected, at every moment, everywhere.” - Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market.

...It’s no wonder that the European Commission is currently pushing forward a development strategy for all things telecommunications.  The Commission sees the availability of effective telecoms systems, including satisfactory broadband, as a key plank of its Digital Single Market strategy (on which we have written previously, for example here).

To that end, the Commission reached agreement with the European Parliament earlier this year to bring about an end to roaming charges within Europe.  The new rules bring network access charges into line with what consumers would pay in their home territory, and should be fully implemented within two years (i.e. by June 2017).  More contentiously, the same legislation also establish net neutrality rules for the first time in the EU.  These rules are intended to limit the ability of network operators to block or throttle customers’ access to particular online content or services, and will apply even sooner – by 30 April 2016.  The Commission’s memo on these changes can be found here.

A substantial further development was announced back in September when the Commission launched a ‘360 degree review’ of telecoms rules and Europe’s current and, more importantly, future broadband requirements.  The first stage of this review comes in the form of a consultation in which the Commission hopes to hear not only from organisations but the general public also – in fact the consultation is open to all “users, organisations, public bodies, and businesses across all sectors”.  Casting the net far and wide should allow the Commission to understand the needs of businesses, such as those that “develop applications and services that depend on connectivity” like eBay, Facebook and Uber, but also to anticipate private requirements and to put together a plan for meeting both business and private needs.  

The broadband consultation is intended to gauge the quality, speed and availability of internet provision that will be required in the future.  By understanding what Europe will need in the years to come, the Commission hopes to be better equipped to create effective policies to promote the growth and strength of connectivity networks and incentivise investors to fund them.  The overall aim is to unify Europe’s telecoms industry and reduce / eradicate inequalities between Member States’ telecoms regulations and pricing structures, which is further reflected in the Telecoms Framework consultation.  Further insight into the review can be found in the Commission’s Q&A here.  #EUhaveyoursay by submitting a response to the consultations and help ensure that Europe is ready for the next stage of the digital revolution!


Analogue taxis and hotels beware! The EU Internal Market Strategy is published

The Commission has published its new internal market strategy. The areas that are likely to be of particular interest are those which overlap with the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy, launched in May 2015. 


These are: 

1. Enabling the development of Europe’s sharing economy

The most eye catching, and potentially controversial, initiative is the promotion of Europe’s online sharing economy, such as Uber or Airbnb.  The commission plans to publish guidance early next year on the position and rights of sharing firms under existing EU rules and also a review of national regulation of sharing services. Interestingly, Jyrki Katainen, a commission vice-president, compared the banning of UberPop (a disruptive car sharing service) with attempts by horse riders to ban cars. 

2. Preventing discrimination on territorial grounds 

Also up for review is the denial of access to cheaper websites, offers and discounts based on territorial restrictions. The commission plans to introduce new rules, and take legal action against Member States, to ensure commercial terms do not discriminate.  The importance of this objective is demonstrated by the commission’s crusade against the geo-blocking of access to sport and film content.    

3. Consolidating Europe’s intellectual property framework

The commission has ambitious plans to modernise the European intellectual property framework, notably for pharmaceutical and other industries. The plans for next year include a review of the EU intellectual property enforcement framework.

The commission’s other initiatives are: 

4. Helping small and medium enterprises and start-ups

In relation to SMEs, the aim is enhanced access to finance and to reform the VAT regime. An in important practical idea is legislation on businesses insolvency, to make sure entrepreneurs have a second chance after being declared bankrupt. 

5. Removing barriers for cross border trade in services

The commission is, rightly, concerned that the EU Services Directive has not achieved its intended objectives. It is well known that architects, engineers, and accountants are often prevented from offering services in other Member States. This objective has the potential to be something of a game changer, however it is one European has consistently struggled to implement in the face of resistance from many professional bodies.
 
6. Addressing restrictions in the retail sector 

There are plans to tackle barriers to setting up retail businesses in other Member States, including: size; location; the requirements for local permits; and discriminatory planning rules. 
 
7. Modernising the European Standards System

The adoption of European wide standards will be reviewed to take into account the increased importance of information and communication technology. 
 
8. Achieving transparent and accountable public procurement

Member States will be able to access assistance with the procurement aspects of large infrastructure projects. 

9. Promoting a culture of enforcement in the single market

There will be a renewed commitment to ensuring that the principle of mutual recognition is respected, accompanied by more rigorous enforcement action against Member States. 

Conclusion

Ambitiously, the commission’s strategy aims to makes significant progress by 2017. However, Europe has attempted to address most of these issues on numerous previous occasions and the degree to which this attempt translates into concrete action will depend on the political will to address powerful vested interests in Member States.  

Noel Watson-Doig

CMA investigates pharmaceutical sector pricing issues

On 26 June 2015, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced the closure of its year-long investigation into a suspected breach of competition law by a pharmaceutical company. The investigation had looked into a loyalty-inducing customer discount scheme – a potential infringement of the competition rules if the company offering the scheme has a dominant position.

While the CMA closure statement does not provide much detail of the investigation (and the company under investigation has not been identified), the CMA must have sought significant documentary evidence in order to reach its provisional conclusion. The CMA evidently concluded that expending further resources on this case would have had limited value. This could be due to a number of possible factors: e.g., the infringement was very small scale; or there were factors which would have made it difficult for the CMA to prove a breach; or the company offering the rebates may not have been dominant. The CMA ultimately sent a warning letter to the investigated company, which constitutes neither a finding of wrongdoing, nor a bar to the investigation being re-opened in future.

CMA guidance on rebate schemes

Although the CMA did not pursue this case, the authority has sought to make clear that there will be situations where the offering of rebates will engage the competition rules. To assist companies to identify such situations, the CMA has provided some general guidance on the use of rebate/discount schemes.

The guidance acknowledges that such schemes can be mutually beneficial for customers and suppliers and that not all rebates or discounts offered by dominant suppliers will engage competition law. For example, a scheme offering rebates/discounts which apply only to units above a certain volume threshold is unlikely to raise competition concerns. This kind of offering is usually justifiable on the basis of the savings to the supplier from selling increased volumes.

However, the CMA guidance also notes that rebate/discount schemes may constitute an abuse of dominance where they have a ‘loyalty-inducing’ or ‘fidelity-building’ effect, which may exclude or limit competing firms’ ability to enter the market. This, in turn, may limit the incentives for firms to innovate, with customers potentially facing higher prices in the long term. In the context of the pharmaceutical industry, this concern is of particular relevance for wholesale supply (e.g., to hospitals/pharmacies), where governmental price regulation / reimbursement schemes do not prevent such rebates or discounts being offered.

One particular scheme highlighted by the CMA is a ‘roll-back’ rebate (also known as a ‘retroactive’ scheme). Under such a scheme, a customer which reaches a specified volume will receive discounts in respect of units purchased both above and below the threshold. The CMA considers this may be capable of ‘inducing’ customer loyalty. This may be an abuse of a dominant position in particular where the grant of the rebate/discount is conditioned on the customer purchasing from the dominant company in circumstances where it might otherwise have decided to buy from a competitor.

The CMA further highlighted that where a scheme results in effective prices charged by the dominant company which are below its production costs, it is likely to be concerned that competitors could be prevented from competing for some/all of the customer demand.

Comment

The content of the CMA’s guidance is in line with EU law in this area, and, as such, should not be seen as a significant new legal development. However, the CMA’s decision to provide guidance on this topic in the context of a pharmaceutical industry investigation suggests that it recognises that such schemes may be commonly used in this industry.

The CMA evidently has a renewed interest in pricing issues for pharmaceutical companies, as it has also recently opened a formal investigation into Pfizer and Flynn to consider possible excessive pricing of the anti-epilepsy drug Epanutin. 

CMA closure statement

For further information on the Pfizer/Flynn case, please see here.  

Nokia / Alcatel-Lucent’s SEP portfolio: A tale of two mergers

In the past few months, Nokia’s acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent has been approved by the EU (Case M.7632, decided 24 July 2015 and published in late September) and Chinese competition authorities (press release announcing decision, 21 October 2015).

While the European Commission approved the merger in Phase I without remedies, the Chinese authority (MOFCOM) has required Nokia to give commitments in relation to the licensing of the acquired standard essential patents (SEPs).  MOFCOM’s market analysis suggested that Nokia’s market position for 4G SEPs (presumably based on patent declarations) would climb from second to first, and considered that “it’s possible that Nokia will use its standard-essential patents (SEPs) to exclude or restrict the relevant market competition after the deal”.  MOFCOM further stated: “After the concentration, the possible unreasonable changes of Nokia’s charges of SEPs will bring differences to the landscape of China’s mobile terminal manufacturing market and wifi equipment manufacturing market. It will exclude and restrict the market competition and finally impair the interest of consumers”.  As a result of MOFCOM’S concerns, Nokia “promised to continue to abide by FRAND rules with regards to SEPs, and also made commitments on topics concerning the prohibition and transferring of SEPs”.  The exact text of the commitments has not (yet) been made public.

Why, then, the concern in China, when no such concern was evinced in the EU?  First, the EU seems to have come to rather different conclusions on the merged entity’s position in 4G technology markets (not the market leader, according to the EU’s assessments).  More fundamentally, the Commission appears to take the view that the FRAND obligations which apply to the transferred patents are sufficient to prevent harm: “The merged entity is […] obliged to license its SEPs to any interested party under such FRAND terms and the transaction will not affect or change the parties' FRAND commitments”.  The way this is expressed is worth noting, since it provides some helpful explanation of the requirement in Article 6.1bis of the ETSI IPR Policy (newly introduced in March 2013) that FRAND undertakings should be “binding on successors-in-interest”.  The Commission evidently understands this to mean that FRAND for a particular SEP has to mean the same thing, regardless of which party is licensing out that patent.  The Commission also seems to place importance on the fact that the merged entity will retain a significant infrastructure manufacturing business.  Query whether its conclusion would have been different had the transfer of SEPs been made to a non-practising entity.    

As regards non-SEPs, the press release from the MOFCOM investigation gives no particular insight.  The Commission took the view that no concerns would arise: it stated that there were no indications that Nokia “would have greater ability and incentive to enforce Alcatel’s non-SEPs than Alcatel has today”, and further stated that its investigation had not suggested that any of Alcatel’s non-SEPs were “indispensable” for manufacturers.  The criterion of indispensability seems to set a high bar for competition law intervention in relation to non-SEPs.  It is, however, in line with the Court of Justice’s view in Huawei v. ZTE that ‘FRAND-encumbered’ SEPs are in a different class from other patents which manufacturers can design around.  Time will tell if this distinction is warranted, so far as the merged entity is concerned.

Sophie Lawrance