The current situation
The current Rights of Way regime for the telecommunications sector is set out in Articles 97-104 of the Law of 21 March 1991 reforming some economic public entities (“the Law”). The regime provides for specific rules for operators of public telecommunications networks wanting to use public (and private) property for the needs of their public telecommunications network.
Operators of public telecommunications networks may use the public domain to install, maintain, remove and control cables and related (accessory) equipment. The rights of way include a right of transit over vacant (private or public) grounds and through constructions in the public domain (such as, for example, privately owned underground parking lots). The rights of way also include the right to seek support from walls or façades (of private properties) bordering the public domain. The cables remain the property of the telecommunications network operator.
Under the present regime, as set out in Article 98, §2 of the Law, rights of way cannot be subjected to any governmental taxes, charges, customs or fees. The use of the public domain for purposes of operating a public telecommunications network is free of charge.
Pending legislative reforms
The exercise of these rights of way by the operators of public telecommunications networks (and utilities companies) has sometimes led to hindrances of other users of the public domain. Many regional and municipal authorities wish to levy charges on the operators of telecommunications networks and utilities companies, in order to reduce the burden for the other users of the public domain and to reimburse the costs incurred by these authorities due to the exercise of the rights of way. Although it is not explicitly mentioned, budgetary constraints of municipal authorities may very likely influence the pending legislative reforms as well.
The Parliament of the Brussels Region
On 21 June 2002, a draft law was filed at the Parliament of the Brussels Region with the purpose of allowing the municipalities to levy charges on utilities companies for the use of the public domain.
The draft law aims to impose a charge on all utilities companies, except on “operators falling within the aim of the Law”. In its Memorandum of 4 July 2003 on this draft law, the Belgian Administrative Court of Appeal (Raad van State / Conseil d’Etat) drew attention to the fact that, due to the political organisation of the Belgian State, the competences to regulate the public domain on the one hand, and telecommunications on the other hand, are not united within the Brussels Region. For issues related to telecommunications, the federal authorities are solely competent. Changes in the current taxation regime for rights of way are therefore subject to an agreement between the Brussels Region and the Federal State.
The Federal Parliament (Chamber of Representatives)
Following the memorandum of the Administrative Court of Appeal, it became clear that no charge could be levied on operators of public telecommunications networks without legislative reform at the federal level. Hence, another draft law was filed with the federal Parliament on 27 November 2003.
According to this draft law, the regional and local authorities may impose charges on operators of public telecommunications networks using the regional and/or local part of the public domain. The charges must be levied on every operator of public telecommunications networks using their public domain and must be based on identical criteria for all the operators.
The pressures of budgetary constraints are currently pushing the regional and local authorities towards new sources of income. One potential new source would be a yearly charge imposed on all users of the public domain (operators of telecommunications networks and utilities companies). This approach can clearly count on some degree of support, as legislative initiatives have been filed recently in Parliament.
Although several steps are required before the draft laws become enacted legislation, operators will have to follow this legislative process closely. Whereas there was little danger of charges for operators of public telecommunications networks under the Brussels Region draft law, the filing of the new draft law with federal Parliament offers local authorities the required authorisation to levy the charges on operators of public telecommunication networks.
This article does not provide a detailed overview of the rights of way regime.
In Dutch: Voorstel van ordonnantie van 21 juni 2002 betreffende een retributie voor het gebruik van het openbaar domein van de gemeenten, Brusselse Hoofdstedelijke Raad, 2001-02, A-310/1.
In French: Proposition d'ordonnance du 21 juin 2002 relative à la redevance pour occupation du domaine public local, Conseil de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, 2001-02, A-310/1.
Unofficial translation: Draft law of 21 June 2002 related to the charge for the use of the public domain of the municipalities, Brussels Region Parliament, 2001-02, A-310/1.
In Dutch: Wetsvoorstel van 27 november 2003 tot wijziging van artikel 98, §2, van de wet van 21 maart 1991 betreffende de hervorming van sommige economische overheidsbedrijven, teneinde de gewestelijke en lokale overheden de mogelijkheid te bieden een retributie te heffen voor het gebruik van het openbaar domein door de telecommunicatieoperatoren, Parl. St.Kamer 2003-04, 0503/001.
In French : Proposition de loi du 27 novembre 2003 modifiant l'article 98, §2, de la loi du 21 mars 1991 portant réforme de certaines entreprises publiques économiques en vue de donner aux autorités régionales et locales la faculté d'établir une redevance pour l'occupation du domaine public par les opérateurs de télécommunication, Parl. St. Kamer 2003-04, 0503/001.
Unofficial translation: Draft law of 27 November 2003 modifying article 98, §2, of the Law of 21 March 1991 reforming some public economic entities in view of offering regional and local authorities the possibility of imposing a charge for the use of the public domain by the operators of telecommunication networks, Parliamentary Documents 2003-04, document 0503/001.
Important - The information in this article is provided subject to the disclaimer. The law may have changed since first publication and the reader is cautioned accordingly.