Telecommunications: the Fastest Track to EU Integration

Interview with Mrs Slava Slavcheva, Head of the Programme Coordination Unit of the Phare Multi-country Programme for Telecommunications and Posts (MPTP)

Mrs Slavcheva, what is the MPTP Programme and what are its priorities?The Phare Multi-country Programme for Telecommunications and Posts is planned for implementation over five budget years. Each of these phases consists of projects of importance for government agencies (ministries and committees), as well as the respective telecommunications and postal operators of each of the 13 participating countries. The Programme is designed in a way allowing recruitment of experts from various organisations for its implementation. The projects targeted at government agencies prioritise harmonisation of legislation and creation of a favourable regulatory environment for liberalisation of telecoms and postal services markets. One particularly significant peculiarity is that international teams are formed within the framework of the Programme and they work jointly. The focus of the Programme is not so much on personnel training as on overcoming existing obstacles to the development of the two sectors in the CEECs and harmonisation of all legislative instruments with the effective legal framework in the EU. The MPTP projects also address common problems in the provision of services in the two sectors. This means that we are working on topics intended, basically, to improve the procedure for provision of new services, harmonising these procedures with the best practices, sharing the experience of Europe's best postal and telecommunications operators. The idea is to improve the quality of customer service and, naturally, to boost operators' earnings.What are the criteria and mechanisms in management of such a large-scale Programme, and how is coordination achieved?The Programme is of a large scope indeed. It involves all Central and Eastern European countries except the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia. The total number of projects in development will top 40 this year. Rigorous organisation is decisive for the smooth functioning of this system. Knowing your own responsibilities and acting accordingly is the key to success. The PCU is staffed by six Bulgarian ladies, each performing a specific function in the fulfilment of tasks.Overall guidance is provided from Brussels, by Task Manager Hendrik Van Maele of European Commission Directorate General IA. Project activities are coordinated by our Unit with the cooperation of all participating countries. Each country assumes the responsibility to be a lead country for one or several projects, and project managers are appointed from among the experts in the respective field. In addition, each country participating in a project nominates a contact point: an expert of the ministry or the operator, who participates in work on the project.When can the CEECs expect tangible results of the programme?I hope that the results will make themselves felt quite soon because the first six projects of the 1995 budget year and one of the 1996 budget year have already been completed and will be introduced into practice shortly. The effect of our Multi-country Programme manifests itself in two aspects. On the one hand, tangible products are being evolved: specific software and in-depth know-how documentation on specific topics. They are written by Western experts and are geared to the specific conditions of the participating countries. One completed project of great practical value is Alternative Models for Development of Rural Telephony. All eleven participating countries in it are convinced that this project should be continued and are planning to put into practice one or several of the developed pilot models even this year.The other aspect, which I think is particularly important, are the intangible assets, including the experience gained by the experts and the mind set to conform to European requirements. One positive result of the Programme is the opportunity for information exchange between the European Union and the CEECs. The experts involved in the teams are thus able to keep in touch even after completion of the developments. Typically, the people participating in the Programme go through a cycle of training to work in a different environment. The participating experts say - and I entirely agree - that work within the Phare Multi-country Programme is professionally gratifying because, on the one hand, it gives them an opportunity to master new skills, learn a lot of new administrative procedures and, on the other, to keep up the level of expertise.How would you assess the participation of Bulgaria in the Programme?Bulgaria actively joined the two phases of the Programme for the 1995 and 1996 budget years. This country participates in the largest number of projects. Bulgarian experts will take part in work on all projects for the 1997 budget years, and Bulgaria will be a lead country for three of them. A Bulgarian-led project for 1995 was Re-engineering of Parcel Services and EMS, and one for 1996 is International Postal Service Quality.As to the postal sector, I believe that the projects involving Bulgarian Posts EAD will help improve express courier services, identify and solve problems in marketing, determine the economically efficient expenses in various postal operations. The next programme will address the topic of improved quality and diversification of counter services. In the telecoms sector, we hope that these projects will remove all legislative obstacles to granting modern licences, to the creation of an independent regulatory agency which is actually the practice of all EU Member States. Our projects are also intended to regulate relations between the various telecoms operators, like mobile service providers. This is a preparation for liberalisation of telecommunications, when other operators will be willing to provide services as well.If we use politicians' jargon, where do Bulgarian telecommunications belong in this country's own track to EU accession?Regionwide, there has been a huge increase in the number of telecommunication lines, telecommunication services have made remarkable progress, digitalisation is everywhere and most CEECs already accept the idea that development in this sphere will be based on digital systems only and the analogue lines will have to be replaced. I am pleased to say that Bulgaria is in the forefront of this process and the national telecoms system is in the fastest track to EU integration. As an expert in this field, I could say that a lot has been done over the last few years for development of telecoms services provided in this country. Just look at the number of business subscribers in Sofia and their increase countrywide. The KAFOS submarine cable system, linking Varna, Istanbul and Mangalia, will go into operation soon. The national digital infrastructure is basically completed, a number of new digital exchanges and routes have become operational. The new quality is probably not yet felt by the mass consumer, but the top priority of the sector in this transition period is to ensure better communications to business people. Telecommunications will thus help the advancement of other sectors, of the entire economy. Let me emphasize that despite the fine pace of progress in this area a lot more remains to be done. It is not enough to declare loudly our desire to join the European structures, our integration should come naturally, by approximating the standards applied in the EU countries.Which most important elements of the emerging Information Society are to be found in the MPTP projects?The Strategies for Implementation of the Information Society Project, programmed for the 1997 budget year, nutshells the key elements of this vast topic. These strategies should be very carefully considered and various options proposed.The economic situation in Central and Eastern Europe differs from one country to another, and the models should enable each country to achieve a satisfactory effect in the long run. Much work awaits all experts in the field, because the Information Society requires an exceedingly high level of technology but also practical experience to match.As far as users are concerned, the end result of building the Information Society will be a ready access to all state-of-the-art technologies and communications. Thus, the ideal target is to have Internet connectivity at each organisation and each school. For the time being, only some business subscribers and a relatively few private subscribers can afford to join the Internet. The idea is to make this universally accessible. The purpose of the Information Society is to give every individual easy access to information exchange, which is in unison with the EU ideas of free movement of people, goods, information, services and money.What is the Programme's financing scheme?The EU has appropriated ECU 28.5 million for implementation of the entire Phare Programme between 1995 and 1999. This amount is front-loaded in the first three budget years of this period, leaving less money for the two final years, when the programme's objects are presumably attained. The Programme sets the framework and the guidelines of future development, but we, too, should invest in the development of modern communications. I think this is only logical - after all, you cannot prepare for full EU membership relying on grant aid only.