Viviane Reding: The woman who is taking on the mobile phones industry

A day in the life of the EU commissioner for Information Society and the Media
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The Independent Online

6am

Viviane Reding, the European Union commissioner for Information Society and Media, knows a good headline when she sees one. As a former journalist and president of the Luxembourg Union of Journalists, her drive to bring down the cost of using a mobile phone abroad by 70 per cent has turned the mobile roaming charges issue into front-page news.

After weeks of frantic negotiations over proposed regulation of roaming rates, a largely intact set of proposals was ushered in on Wednesday, much to the consternation of the mobile phone industry. Ms Reding's relentless desire to force down roaming charges may result in her winning the reputation as a consumer champion. Yet within the mobile phone industry that she is tasked with regulating, she has won few friends over the past year.

The day after the EU revealed its plan to force mobile roaming about 70 per cent lower through regulation, Ms Reding rises early and decides to skip breakfast. Sipping her coffee in Brussels, she peruses some of the major European newspapers to gauge the press reaction to the ruling.

Although it has been written about regularly over the past few months, the regulation of roaming rates still attracts serious attention in many papers, including a front page-story in the Financial Times.

Some papers focused instead on the reaction from mobile operators, not least Vodafone - Europe's largest mobile phone company - that have labelled the regulation illegal. "This politically inspired move is ill-thought out and arbitrary ... The EU is meant to protect us from 'arbitrary and unjustified regulation'," a Vodafone spokesman proclaimed. Vodafone also levelled the accusation that price caps set by the EU for wholesale and retail rate roaming charges are more expensive than some of its existing roaming products, packages now deemed illegal, given the ruling from the EU.

When confronted with such allegations in the press, Ms Reding smiles as if she has heard it all before, which of course she has. "After being very patient and warning them [mobile operators] several times, I reached the end of my patience." She adds that she has been frustrated and exasperated by the behaviour of mobile operators. "The only way out was to have a European law. I regret it because I don't like regulation. I would prefer to let market forces determine appropriate pricing but it was not possible."

She also dismisses the idea that the price caps prohibit existing mobile phone roaming packages - such as Vodafone's Passport service which has 7.2 million members. Ms Reding says such packages would be acceptable but the onus is on the operator to prove consumers benefit from prices that do not breach price caps the EU has set.

8am

After meeting her chief of cabinet and press spokesman about another telecoms case the EU is debating over the coming weeks, Ms Reding boards the Eurostar for London. Ironically, she would have read of Eurotunnel's financial crisis in most of that morning's newspapers, but dismisses the notion that the roaming regulation could send mobile phone companies down the same route.

"These laws are not putting operators out of business. We will leave them a margin under which competition can function. It will be back to normal, not robbery as it has been with these exaggerated prices." Talk of meetings regarding further telecoms regulation is the last thing European operators want to hear, but it is understood that the issue in question should not overly concern mobile phone companies.

Ms Reding is relaxed enough to catch half an hour's sleep on the Eurostar before confronting industry representatives and the press in a meetings on her arrival in Westminster. Ms Reding believes that despite some amendments to her initial regulatory proposals, the roaming initiative has been a success. The fact that most major mobile operators have already unveiled plans to slash mobile roaming costs over the coming months has been offered as proof that her initiative has already produced results, but she is not content to rest on her roaming laurels. "I hope the operators will not wait until the new laws come into force to offer consumers the best deal."

In particular, Ms Reding is keen to argue the case for European businesses that have been vociferous in criticising the high roaming charges in conversations with her. "Our American friends are doing business between California and New York with no roaming charges. European businesses are complaining as a result of a loss of competitiveness. About 80 per cent of roaming customers are business users. We want to create a level playing field for our business community as a whole."

Sitting in a meeting room in the dowdy EU building that is in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, the smartly dressed Ms Reding urges mobile operators to bring roaming costs down further. "The operators should invest heavily into business models rather than lobbying." Ms Reding has faced significant opposition within the EU to her proposals, most notably from Britain's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson.

As a politician in her native Luxembourg, Ms Reding grew accustomed to consensus-style politics. Yet in her two years as European commissioner for Information Society and Media, she has had to toughen up in the face of severe industry criticism and lately, internal feuding within the EU.

Asked about Mr Mandelson's opposition to her proposals, Ms Reding smiles and says softly: "We all have our own style. My style is to present the results when they have been agreed upon. That is why I went to the president and presented the case collegiately and not made speculations before any decisions have been made."

A few moments later, Mr Mandelson - famously labelled the "Prince of Darkness" during his time in British politics - stuck his head around the door of the meeting room, almost as a reminder that the walls have ears in Westminster.

2.30pm

Ms Reding's next mission is to develop future-proof regulation for the European television industry. The initiative, dubbed "TV Without Frontiers", will attempt to establish a EU directive that promotes and stimulates content production in a cross-border market no longer tied to traditional broadcast technologies.

Emerging delivery methods such as video on demand, internet sites, mobile television and user-generated content, make regulating television across the 25 European member states a difficult process. The directive will aim to set minimum standards for advertising and child protection in a technology and platform neutral regulatory environment.

In a meeting with British filmmakers, Ms Reding says the EU is not interested in regulating the internet, as some have feared. Instead, she talks about fostering further development of the European film industry. "We are going to have so many means for bringing content to the people. I would like European content businesses to be able to take advantage of the single market, not each separate market. That means 450 million potential consumers." She added that British film-makers do the bulk of their business on the Continent so opening up regulatory borders between the 25 EU states can encourage further exploitation of the European market. "It is about growth and jobs basically, but also about cultural diversity."

9.30pm

The indefatigable Ms Reding dusts off her passport once more as she flies out to Finland to continue to press her case on roaming regulation.

The flight from Heathrow to Helsinki at least offers a chance to eat and partake in a glass of Bordeaux, as well as a nap, as she prepares to meet Finnish EU representatives. Finland took over the EU presidency on 1 July and will be critically involved in presenting the roaming proposals to the Council of Ministers to be voted on. From Brussels to London to Finland, few could claim not to have heard about the fuss the EU has made over high roaming tariffs. With Ms Reding leading the charge, who would bet against cross-border television regulation making the front pages in a few years' time?

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