Operators would not be allowed to block or throttle VoIP and messaging services such as Skype if planned net neutrality rules are adopted across the European Union by next Easter.
In a speech that revealed more details of the proposed net neutrality legislation announced last week, Europe's digital chief, Neelie Kroes, said services like VoIP or messaging services provided by companies such as Skype and WhatsApp offer real innovation for consumers.
"But some ISPs deliberately degrade those services, or block them outright, simply to avoid the competition," she added. "Many Europeans expect protection against such commercial tactics. And that is exactly the EU safeguard we will be providing. A safeguard for every European, on every device, on every network: a guarantee of access to the full and open internet, without any blocking or throttling of competing services."
Ryan Heath, a spokesman for Kroes at the European Commission, later tweeted: "Fact of the day - up to 236 million phone users in
#Europe can't use #Skype today. That's a pretty good reason for #netneutrality #nninep."
While acknowledging that "net neutrality can be a polarising debate," Kroes insisted that if the issue is not addressed, "wider problems will arise and tomorrow's innovative services might have to stop at the border."
"The commission is 100 per cent committed to the open Internet," Kroes told the Financial Times. "Anti-competitive blocking needs to end. I think it's unsustainable and on the way out, but I am willing to push it out."
Kroes cited a 2011 study by European regulators (through BEREC) that showed online services are blocked or degraded for around one in five fixed lines and more than one in three mobile users. "It is obvious that this impacts consumers, but startups also suffer," she said. "Plus, many other Europeans aren't getting the speeds or quality they paid for. This is a basic principle that applies in other consumer markets--it should apply to internet access too."
Unlike the proposals for net neutrality in the United States, Kroes does not seem to be drawing a distinction between fixed and mobile Internet services, so that all network operators and ISPs would be affected by any rules that are ultimately adopted. Like the U.S., the European Commission does leave scope for a two-speed Internet, by allowing operators to charge for guaranteed end-to-end services for applications such as videoconferencing, for example. "If you don't want to buy them that is also fine, and you should absolutely continue to benefit from the 'best efforts Internet,'" Kroes added.
If the U.S. example is anything to go by following the introduction of net neutrality rules by the FCC, the European Commission will face some strong resistance to its own net neutrality rules, which are part of a wider digital agenda to create a single market for telecoms. The abolishment of roaming charges is a further controversial element of this plan.
Operators are opposed to both of the key proposals. They believe OTT players such as Apple and Google should be forced to pay more to maintain mobile networks, and see the end of roaming charges as a further attack on their revenues.
Luigi Gambardella, the chairman of the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), told the FT that regulation or legislation was not the way forward. He said the Citizens' Rights Directive already provided safeguards for net neutrality. However, the FT noted that he also agreed that anti-competitive blocking and Internet data and content throttling should not be allowed.
Rules on net neutrality are already in place in two European countries. In May 2012 the Netherlands enshrined net neutrality in law following attempts by Dutch incumbent operator KPN to make users pay extra for using third-party apps over its 3G network. Slovenia then introduced legislative framework (the Economic Communications Bill) that includes net neutrality in December 2012.
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