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European Commission Publishes ‘Roadmap’ on Standard Chargers for Mobile Phones in the EU

The European Commission has opened up its ‘roadmap’ – i.e., Inception Impact Assessment (“IIA”) - for the ‘Common chargers for mobile telephones and other compatible devices’ initiative, and has asked for feedback to be provided by the deadline of 31 January 2019. The initiative, led by the Directorate General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (“DG GROW”), aims to harmonise chargers for data-enabled mobile phones sold in the EU, guaranteeing interoperability between chargers and phones on the market. Hong Kong manufacturers of mobile phones, chargers and accessories such as Lenovo will be affected by this initiative in that charging solutions for mobile devices sold in the EU will ultimately be subject to a new harmonised standard if the initiative is seen through and adopted.

The common chargers initiative follows the expiry in 2014 of a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding (“MoU”) signed by major producers of mobile phones including Huawei Technologies, LG Electronics and Samsung, to harmonise chargers for phones sold within the European Union. The MoU had the double objective of minimising waste and energy consumption by reducing the need to buy or continuously exchange chargers and cables, and developing a competitive Digital Single Market by ensuring interoperability in the market for mobile phones and other compatible devices.

The ‘common charger’ solution adopted in the MoU was based on the USB 2.0 Micro B socket, with a progress report dating from early 2013 indicating that 90% of new mobile devices placed on the market by MoU signatories and other manufacturers by the end of 2012 supported the common charging capability (i.e., were USB 2.0 Micro B-compatible). According to a 2014 study on the impact of the MoU on harmonisation of chargers, harmonisation by way of a voluntary agreement, together with the development of a technical standard at the European level, have proved “highly effective”. Indeed, the MoU is estimated to have resulted in between 6 to21 million fewer standalone chargers between 2011 and 2013.

With this in mind, a new Memorandum of Understanding signed by seven major mobile phone manufacturers, including Apple, LG Electronics and Lenovo, was proposed on 20 March 2018. However, this proposal failed to guarantee the possibility to use the same chargers or certain accessories and peripherals such as docking stations of speakers with different brands of mobile phones, effectively precluding full interoperability of chargers between mobile phones. In this scenario, at least three technologies would be concurrently available – USB 2.0 Micro B, USB-C and Apple Lightning – frustrating the achievement of a reduction in electronic waste and allowing for the proliferation of several proprietary charger types.

According to the European Commission’s IIA, the common chargers initiative aims to “limit fragmentation of charging solutions, at the same time not hampering future technological evolution” in line with Article 3(3)(a) of the Radio Equipment Directive. This provision explicitly refers to the interoperability of radio equipment – i.e., data-enabled mobile phones – with common chargers. In this regard, the IIA considers three policy options: (i) the baseline scenario, in which producers would not be obliged to implement common charging solutions; (ii) a voluntary approach, similar to the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding arrangement; and (iii) a binding regulatory option.

In order to assess these options, the IIA identifies a series of technical scenarios to be taken into account, including plug chargers with detachable cables: for example the use of USB-A sockets on plug chargers, where detachable cables permitting use with USB-A to USB 2.0 Micro B or USB-C sockets are included. Technical options accounting for new technologies such as fast charging, wireless charging and innovation aspects thereof will also be considered.

Hong Kong manufacturers should also be aware that the IIA recognises the possibility of ensuring interoperability of mobile chargers with a “variety of electronic and electrical equipment”, extending the scope of possible regulatory options beyond smartphones. This would considerably widen the scope of the measure, affecting a much larger number of products, markets and commercial operators. Equipment that could fall under the scope of the wider initiative, so conceived, might include tablets, cameras, portable GPS devices, radio-controlled toys and “any other devices with compatible current requirements”.

At the moment, the Commission is inviting feedback on the IIA until 31 January 2019. Among the responses received thus far, EERA (the European Electronics Recyclers Association) has highlighted the importance of ensuring that common chargers also use the same materials in order to facilitate recycling and maximise resource efficiency.

Hong Kong manufacturers should note that anyone who might be affected by the initiative is invited to submit feedback, including businesses and business associations. After January, the next steps in the process – a public consultation, the publication of the draft delegated regulation and adoption thereof – are planned for the fourth quarter of 2019. Further opportunities for submitting feedback will be available at the public consultation and draft act stages.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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