9 Aug 2018
European Union Renews Focus for a Common Mobile Phone Charger
The Commission has been driving its agenda for a common charger for nearly a decade. Traditionally, mobile phones were only compatible with specific mobile phone chargers which varied according to the manufacturer and, in some instances, the model. The Commission cites that, at one stage, there were more than 30 different types of charger on the market.
This multiplicity of chargers causes both inconvenience to the consumer and unnecessary electronic waste. The Commission claims that the number of old chargers generates more than 51,000 tonnes of electronic waste per year in the EU.
Against this background, Hong Kong’s electronics community may recall that, in 2009, a voluntary Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the European Commission and fourteen of the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturers, namely, Motorola, LGE, Samsung, RIM, Nokia, SonyEricsson, NEC, Apple, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Emblaze Mobile, Huawei Technologies, TCT Mobile and Atmel. Within the framework of this MoU, the parties agreed to harmonise chargers for new models of data-enabled handsets coming onto the market as of 2011. Hong Kong’s handset and charger unit sellers may likewise have been aware that the MoU committed the industry to providing charger compatibility on the basis of the micro-USB connector. However, manufacturers were explicitly allowed to provide an adaptor (micro-USB to other connector) instead of a micro-USB connector.
While the MoU expired at the end of 2012, a number of its signatories signed two subsequent “Letters of Intent” in 2013 and 2014 which effectively extended the MoU. It is estimated that the voluntary harmonisation under the MoU and the Letters of Intent cover 90% of the mobile phone market in the EU.
Further momentum was gained in 2014 with the introduction of the Radio Equipment Directive (Directive 2014/53/EU). While a recital of the Directive recognises the need for a renewed effort for a common charger for mobile phones, there is no specific provision in the text of the Directive itself. However, Article 3(3) does provide the Commission with the option to regulate on a common charger if it is deemed necessary.
Moreover, a study was concluded in August 2014 to evaluate the results achieved by the MoU. In particular, the study analysed how the stated objectives of delivering benefits for consumers and the industry were met and whether the quantity of electronic waste had reduced.
As regards consumer convenience or lack thereof, the final report concluded that the number of different charging connectors on the market has declined substantially and that the vast majority of handset owners now have an MoU-compliant phone. In relation to electronic waste, the final report noted that only 0.02% of handset shipments were actually supplied without chargers, therefore undermining the potential reduction of electronic waste.
However, on 1 August 2018, the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, said that “given the unsatisfactory progress with this voluntary approach, the Commission will shortly launch an impact assessment study to evaluate costs and benefits of other different options”.
Such impact assessments examine whether there is a need for EU action and provide evidence to inform and support the decision-making process. In this regard, the impact assessment study will investigate the effectiveness of the voluntary method of harmonisation under the MoU and inform the Commission as to whether a different approach is necessitated.
If the impact assessment study shows the voluntary method of harmonisation has proven to be ineffective, it is possible that the Commission will propose legislation imposing a common standard for chargers within the EU market. Any standard imposed would most likely build upon the MoU and endorse the micro-USB connector. This would result in manufacturers like Apple, who use a proprietary connector (Lightning), having to adopt the common standard.