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Lowdown on the EU’s proposal for a universal charging port

Mobile News
October 25, 2021

The EU has set out its reasoning behind its proposal for a universal charging solution and the benefits it will bring

Last month, the EU proposed a common charging solution for electronic devices in a move aimed at improving customer convenience and reducing costs, as well as cutting waste and environmental impact from their disposal.

The proposal covers smartphones, tablets, handheld games consoles, cameras, headphones and portable speakers.

Although Apple objected to the plan, arguing that it would harm innovation (Mobile News, issue 710), the EU believes a common solution will have major benefits.

At the time of the proposal, the European Commission outlined the rationale in a Q&A on its website. Here’s what it said.

Why is the commission acting to introduce a common charging solution?

Innovation and rapid development of the ICT market has led to high number of devices and charging solutions. While ICT innovation is generally welcome, this has led to consumer overload and frustration, with incompatible charging solutions and negative impact on the environment.

Years of working with industry on a voluntary approach already brought down the number of mobile phone chargers from 30 to three within the last decade, but could not deliver a complete solution.

The Commission is now putting forward legislation to establish a common charging solution for all relevant devices.

The proposed measures, which will apply to smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld video-game consoles, aim at improving consumers’ convenience and reducing the environmental footprint associated with the production and disposal of chargers, while enabling further innovation in the field.

What is the current situation?

In the EU, approximately 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the last year. On average, a consumer owns three mobile phone chargers, of which they use two on a regular basis.

Some 38 per cent of consumers report having experienced problems at least once that they could not charge their mobile phone because available chargers were incompatible. The situation is inconvenient and costly for consumers, who spend approximately €2.4 billion annually on standalone chargers that do not come with their electronic devices.

In addition, disposed-of and unused chargers are estimated to represent about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually. A common charging solution is expected to reduce this by almost a thousand tonnes annually.

Why is the commission taking legislative action only now?

The Commission has supported a common charger for mobile phones and similar electronic devices since 2009.

The Commission supported a voluntary agreement by the industry in 2009, which resulted in the adoption of the first Memorandum of Understanding.

The voluntary agreement between industries has been able to reduce the number of charger solutions on the market from 30 to three.

In 2014, the Memorandum of Understanding expired after two letters of renewal. Despite the Commission’s efforts to enable a new ambitious Memorandum of Understanding, the new agreement proposed by the industry in 2018 fell short of our and EU consumers’ expectations, as it would not have delivered a common charging solution.

As a result, the Commission has decided to adopt a legislative approach to deliver a common charging solution.

The Commission has proposed new legislative measures by amending the Radio Equipment Directive.

What are the measures the commission is proposing? 

The Commission proposes to introduce new requirements to ensure the interoperability for the charging of a number of electronic devices.

In particular, the Commission proposes to:

  • Harmonise the charging port: USB-C will become the standard one for all devices covered;
  • Harmonise the fast charging technology;
  • Give consumers the possibility of choosing whether to purchase a new electronic device with or without a new charger;
  • Inform consumers about charging characteristics of the electronic devices.

Which electronic devices are covered by today’s proposal?

The products concerned by these new requirements are mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones, headsets, handheld video-game consoles, and portable speakers.

The broadening of the scope beyond mobile phones allows to further enhance the positive impacts of the requirements.

Why are other devices not included in the scope of the proposal? 

The products covered by the Commission’s proposal are among the most used by a large group of consumers and share similar charging characteristics. Other products such as earbuds, smartwatches and fitness trackers were not considered for technical reasons linked to [factors such as] their size [and] use conditions.

The products concerned by the amendment to the Radio Equipment Directive were identified as having a strong potential to integrate the common charging solution and to secure the biggest benefits for consumers and the environment.

What benefits will a common charging solution bring?

The proposed measures will [firstly deliver] better choice for consumers. Consumers will now be able to use the same charger to charge mobile phones and other similar electronic devices regardless of the brand.

This improved interoperability between the electronic device and the common charger will ensure that the speed of charge is the same when using a compatible charger.

In addition, consumers will be better informed about charging performance, including information on the power required by the device and if it supports fast charging.

This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger.

The new requirements will ultimately contribute to the reuse of chargers and help consumers to save €250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases.

[The measures will also mean] less e-waste. Consumers will now have the choice to purchase a new electronic device with or without an external power supply (the part that is plugged into an electrical outlet in the wall).

Therefore, the new measures are expected to generate environmental benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 180 ktCO2e yearly and reducing e-waste by almost a thousand tonnes yearly.

The unbundling of the external power supply contributes the most to these savings, while helping to reduce the extraction of resources, manufacture, transport, use and disposal of the chargers.

Will proposal be an obstacle to innovation?

The Commission’s proposal aims at providing consumers with an open and interoperable solution and, at the same time, enabling technological innovation. The proposal encourages innovation for wired and wireless technology charging.

Any technological developments in wired charging can be reflected in a timely adjustment of technical requirements [or] specific standards under the Radio Equipment Directive. This would ensure that the technology used is not outdated.

At the same time, the implementation of any new standards in further revisions of the Radio Equipment Directive would need to be developed in a harmonised manner, respecting the objectives of full interoperability.

Industry is therefore expected to continue the work already undertaken on the standardised interface, led by the USB-IF [USB-Implementers Forum] organisation, in view of developing new interoperable, open and non-controversial solutions.

In addition, larger technological developments are expected in the area of wireless charging, which is still a developing technology with a low level of market fragmentation.

In order to allow innovation in this field, the proposal does not set specific technical requirements for wireless charging. Therefore, manufacturers remain free to include any wireless charging solution in their products alongside the wired charging via the USB-C port.

What is the proposed harmonised charging port solution?

The Commission proposes the use of the USB type C port as a harmonised charging port. This port was chosen on the basis of the latest technological developments.

The proposed new requirement will ensure that users will not find themselves in situations where they are unable to charge their device because there is no compatible charger at their disposal. This solution has been selected as a common specification in order to allow full interoperability between electronic devices concerned and chargers. Also, its specifications are translated into European standards.

Does the proposal harmonise charging speed for fast charging devices?

The proposal also harmonises charging speed for devices that support fast charging. This will now be defined by the mandatory use of the common charging protocol USB Power Delivery, which allows the electronic device and the charger to communicate to deliver the fastest time of charge.

The proposed new requirement will ensure that users will be able to charge their electronic device at the same speed with any compatible charger.

These specifications are translated into European standards. Other charging protocols are still allowed, provided that they do not impede the full functionality of the common harmonised solution.

Will the cable continue to be sold with the device? 

While consumers will be able to choose whether to buy an electronic device with or without a charger, the purchased devices can still be sold with a cable in the box.

Cables have other uses other than charging: they can be used to transfer data, and they can be used to directly charge in certain circumstances (for instance in a hotel, in a train or in an airport).

According to the ‘Impact Assessment Study to Assess Unbundling of Chargers’, users still find it useful to find a cable in the box, as it is the component that tends to break more often. In addition, cables require far less resources, produce less greenhouse emissions and generate less e-waste than the external power supply.

Will consumers still be able to buy a charger with an electronic device if they wish to do so?

With the new requirements, specific electronic devices will be offered without an external power supply inside the box.

However, manufacturers still have the possibility to offer a bundled solution – so to sell an electronic device with an external power supply if they also offer an unbundled solution of the same exact product.

What information about charging characteristics will be provided with the electronic device? 

The proposal requires operators to provide more information about charging characteristics of electronic devices.

The proposal aims to enable consumers to easily compare the charging performance and interoperability of the electronic device and the charger, and match them as appropriate.

To do so, the following information should be displayed:

• Information about the maximum power that the device requires to charge optimally.

• In case of ‘fast charging’ capability, information on the common ‘fast’ charging protocol and any other additional fast charging protocols supported.

Where will the charging information be displayed? 

Information will be displayed in printed form on the packaging or, in the absence of packaging, on a label accompanying the electronic devices, with the condition that the label is visible.

This will allow users to know what are the charging requirements before purchasing a new electronic device, and therefore instantly know if the charger that they have at home is suitable or if they need to buy a compatible one.

Disposed-of and unused chargers create about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste per year

What will happen to old chargers?

For those chargers that already fulfil the new interoperability requirements, users will of course be able to reuse them.

For the chargers that are not interoperable, they will need to be disposed of and recycled when the corresponding devices are replaced.

Users will have sufficient time to adapt thanks to the transitional period foreseen before the entry into force of the new requirements. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive on treating waste electrical and electronic equipment requires the separate collection and proper treatment of WEEE and sets targets for their collection, as well as for their recovery and recycling.

It also helps member states fight illegal waste exports more effectively by making it harder for exporters to disguise illegal shipments of WEEE, and reduces the administrative burden by calling for the harmonisation of national electrical and electronic equipment registers, and of the reporting format.

When is the proposal likely to come into effect?

The Commission proposal for a revised Radio Equipment Directive will now need to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council by ordinary legislative procedure (co-decision).

A transition period of 24 months from the date of adoption will give industry ample time to adapt before the entry into application.

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