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Watered Down EU Deal to Protect Open Internet and End Roaming Charges

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015 (9:44 am) - Score 674
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After years of disagreement the European Parliament, Council and Commission claim to have finally reached a deal that will both “end” mobile roaming charges on 15th June 2017 and introduce “strong net neutrality rules” in order to protect open Internet access. But some of the rules have been watered down.

Readers with a long enough memory may well recall that the original proposal for all this, which forms part of Europe’s plan for a Single Telecoms Market, first officially surfaced in September 2013 after lengthy investigation (here) and soon met with opposition, not least from telecoms operators, other member states and some national regulators that were worried about their profits.

Never the less an agreement has finally been reached, yet beneath all of the positive spin resides a set of policies that might not be quite what some of the most ardent campaigners were perhaps hoping to see; such is life when compromises must be made.

Günther H. Oettinger, Commissioner for the EU Digital Economy, said:

I welcome today’s crucial agreement to finally end roaming charges and establish pragmatic net neutrality rules throughout the EU. Both are essential for consumers and businesses in today’s European digital economy and society. We will build on these important foundations in our forthcoming review of the EU’s telecoms legislation.”

Ending Mobile Roaming Charges

Perhaps the strongest change is that of the EU’s move to end mobile roaming charges for those travelling between member states (France, Germany, UK etc.), which means that when travelling between related countries you’d simply continue to pay whatever you do today for your existing tariff.

Under the original plan the EU Commission and Parliament had wanted to end roaming charges from June 2016, although this will not now occur until a year after that and instead there will first be another fall in normal roaming charges from April 2016.

In other words mobile operators will, from April next year, have to add only a “small additional amount” to domestic prices, worth up to €0.05 (£0.04) per minute of calls made, €0.02 (£0.01) per SMS sent and €0.05 (£0.05) per MegaByte of mobile broadband data (excl. VAT). This maximum roaming charge is about 75% cheaper than current roaming caps for calls made and data, which is a huge fall.

The theory here is that by doing this consumers and businesses will feel encouraged to use their services and improve communications, which should in turn benefit the wider EU economy by removing some of the biggest restrictions to accessibility.

But mobile operators won’t be happy as this will surely erode their already stumbling revenue streams, which could in turn encourage some operators to actually increase their domestic tariff prices in order to compensate. The EU suggests this probably won’t happen, but we’re not so sure.

However a new Fair Use Safeguard will also be introduced to help prevent “abusive use of roaming services, such as ‘permanent roaming’, which otherwise could undermine domestic markets.” The details of this are still not entirely clear, but it’s not hard to envisage that the rules might still impose restrictions on your usage and the EU should clarify this ASAP.

Net Neutrality Safeguards

The issue of how to balance Net Neutrality (i.e. the principal of treating all Internet traffic as equal) has also been one of the most tedious to resolve. In reality anybody with a proper knowledge of computer and Internet networking will understand that such a principle has never truly existed because all data traffic will, at one stage or another, face some degree of management or adjustment.

In the early days of the Internet this wasn’t such an issue because most ISPs simply agreed to the free exchange of data traffic through primary exchanges, such as the London Internet Exchange (LINX). But in the modern world many of the biggest content providers, such as YouTube and Netflix, have begun to use commercial traffic providers and this costs broadband ISPs money to deliver.

In response some ISPs have sought to balance their books by proposing to charge content providers for the delivery of their data to customers (i.e. the content provider either pays up or their service performance suffers), which has received significant criticism with opponents suggesting that ISPs would do better to simply charge customers more for what they use. This is what ISPs are already supposed to do, but competition and demand for low cost “unlimited” plans can make raising prices too fast very unpopular. Mercifully this hasn’t become a big problem in the UK.

On top of that some ISPs and Mobile Network Operators (MNO) have also felt the need to impose arguably unfair restrictions on specific Internet services, such as in order to favour their own rival product (e.g. mobile operators sometimes block Skype or throttle VoIP traffic in order to defend their own voice call solutions).

As such today’s agreement is somewhat of a necessary compromise between all the many complex and competing interests, which initially gets off to a seemingly strong start by promising that “all traffic will be treated equally” and “enshrines for the first time the principle of net neutrality into EU law: users will be free to access the content of their choice, they will not be unfairly blocked or slowed down anymore, and paid prioritisation will not be allowed“. But there are some clear exceptions.

Key Changes (Net Neutrality Caveats)

* Equal treatment still allows “reasonable” day-to-day Traffic Management according to “justified technical requirements“, and which must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic. In other words, traffic management is allowed, but “operators cannot invoke this exception if their network is frequently congested due to under-investment and capacity scarcity” (we’re not sure how they’ll police that one).

* A number of public-interest exceptions also exist, which allow for ISPs and mobile operators to introduce network security systems (e.g. anti-virus, anti-DDoS etc.) and blocks against truly illegal content, such as child pornography.

* Related decisions by “public authorities or a court order“, such as the blocks used against piracy websites, will also still be respected.

* Internet providers will also still be able to offer specialised services of a “higher quality“, such as Internet TV (IPTV) and other new innovative applications (e.g. telemedicine), so long as these services are “not supplied at the expense of the quality of the open Internet“.

* The rules also make an exception to filter spam and to allow parents to set up parental controls that block pornography or gratuitous violence etc. But it’s specifically stated that this must be done “with the prior request or consent of end-users and the possibility to withdraw the consent, and thus such filters, at any time“. As such some ISPs, such as Sky Broadband that enables related filtering regardless of whether or not their customers have chosen to ignore the notice (here), may need to adjust their position.

Some critics will no doubt cry foul over the watered down proposal, although it’s hard to see how they could have done anything else without running into opposition from member states or killing off the new generation of IPTV based TV services that are often bundled by broadband ISPs. An overly restrictive rule might well have been counterproductive.

The new rules are also very similar to the United Kingdom’s current Open Internet Code of Practice, which is supported by most of the markets major broadband and mobile providers. But the UK’s code is voluntary, while the new EU rules will be enshrined in law and Ofcom will thus be called upon to both reflect and police that.

At this point the more observant may note that the original Single Telecoms Market rules were also supposed to contain other provisions, such as measure for boosting investment in ultrafast broadband networks, freeing up more mobile spectrum and other pro-competition changes etc.

Sadly none of those aspects mentioned above have been included today, but we understand that they will follow as part of the final 2016 EU Telecoms Rules package. All of that is due to be polished off by 30th April 2016, so we should hear something soon. A useful Q&A can be found here.

UPDATE 10:20am

We have the first comment from the ITSPA, which is an important industry pro-VoIP body.

Eli Katz, Chair of ITSPA, told ISPreview.co.uk:

It’s great that the EU is going to block the blockers. We’ve campaigned for years for action to stop internet services like VoIP being blocked by a few fixed and mobile operators who can’t stand any competition to their own services.

These regulations are a sensible compromise; they will keep the internet open but they will also allow network operators to manage the network efficiently and develop new services for the future. This is great news for the VoIP industry and everyone who uses the internet. The Latvian Presidency of the EU has worked hard on this and is to be congratulated.”

UPDATE 1:53pm

Some more comments have just come in.

Adrian Baschnonga, Lead Telecoms Analyst at Ernst & Young, said:

Plans to abolish roaming charges by mid-2017 is good news for mobile users across the continent, and signifies a natural end-point to gradual price reductions enforced by the EU since 2007. However, new net neutrality guidelines may still present challenges in terms of implementation.

While operators have the scope to prioritise certain types of traffic, such as IPTV, as a route to greater service innovation, there may be penalties for breaching this nuanced set of open internet rules. What these guidelines and penalties will actually look like, and how they will be policed and enforced, is yet to be seen so there could be a sting in the tail for operators.”

Matthew Evans, CEO of The Broadband Stakeholder Group, added:

Competition, transparency, and consumers’ ability to switch providers create the right conditions for an Open Internet and for stimulating innovation in the UK. The new EU net neutrality rules cover the principles underpinned by the existing UK Codes. However, the new Regulation will introduce exceptions to traffic management which may have an impact on current policies such as spam filtering and parental control.”

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar Steve Jones

    At least there is some recognition that, these days, the Internet isn’t just some magic cloud into which an ISP plugs it’s customer via a gateway. In reality it’s a complex mesh of peering arrangements and content delivery systems with some of the latter, reputedly, hosted in some of the larger ISPs’ internal networks.

    The “every packet was born” equal fundamentalists might care to take note. The reality is much more complex than the, now ancient, origins of the egalitarian Internet. Indeed, if this complex web of peering and content hosing had not emerged it’s difficult to see how the modern network would actually work. It should also be note that the arrival of dedicated CDNs actually improves the “core” Internet performance.

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