EU sets up Apple showdown over USB-C chargers

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By Nick Flaherty

After three years of encouraging manufacturers to stop making proprietary phone chargers, the EU is moving to legislation.

This will set up a showdown with Apple which is the only major manufacturer not to use USB-C chargers for its phones, even though it does use the technology for the iPad Pro.

“Years of working with industry on a voluntary approach already brought down the number of mobile phone chargers from 30 to 3 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,” it said.

In 2020, approximately 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU and consumers spent €2.4bn on standalone chargers. Disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to pile up to 11,000 tonnes of e-waste every year.

So the voluntary moves have reduced the number of charging solutions for mobile phones on the market from 30 to 3: USB Power Delivery (USB PD), Qualcomm Quick Charge and Apple.

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Apple has previously said that moving to a common standard would hit innovation.

Today’s proposal for a revised Radio Equipment Directive means the charging port and fast charging technology will be harmonised. USB-C will become the standard port for all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles. In addition, the Commission proposes to unbundle the sale of chargers from the sale of electronic devices. This will improve consumers’ convenience and reduce the environmental footprint associated with the production and disposal of chargers, thereby supporting the green and digital transitions.

However this will require full interoperability on both sides of the cable. The internal fast charging standard will be addressed by this legislation, while the interoperability of the external power supply will be addressed by the review of the Commission’s Ecodesign Regulation. This will be launched later this year so that its entry into force can be aligned with the current proposal.

“European consumers were frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers. We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions, now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger. This is an important win for our consumers and environment and in line with our green and digital ambitions,” said Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age.

Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the Internal Market, set down a direct challenge.

“Chargers power all our most essential electronic devices. With more and more devices, more and more chargers are sold that are not interchangeable or not necessary. We are putting an end to that,” he said. “With our proposal, European consumers will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics – an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste.”

USB-C will be the common port with harmonised fast charging technology. This will help prevent different producers limiting the charging speed and will help to ensure that charging speed is the same when using any compatible charger for a device.

Another part of the legislation will see the unbundling the sale of a charger from the sale of the electronic device. This will limit the number of unwanted chargers purchased or left unused. Reducing production and disposal of new chargers is estimated to reduce the amount of electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes every year.

The revised Radio Equipment Directive will now need to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. A transition period of 24 months from the date of adoption will give the industry time to adapt.

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