EU telecoms package passes first hurdle, but net neutrality remains contentious

The latest draft of the European Union's proposed legislation on the telecoms single market moved a step closer to realising its goals this week, after the European Parliament's Industry Committee backed plans that include bringing an end to roaming charges and the introduction of net neutrality rules.

Neelie Kroes - EC vice president

Pilar del Castillo Vera, who leads the European Parliament's work with the package, said the committee has proposed abolishing retail roaming charges for voice, SMS and data by December 15, 2015, in a move that was warmly welcomed by Neelie Kroes, the European Commission vice president who has been the main driver of EU telecoms market reforms.

At the same time, the MEPs also asked the European Commission to lay down guidelines for "exceptional cases in which companies would be allowed to apply charges", although these charges would have to be below the caps laid down in current roaming rules. The Industry Committee said this is to protect telecoms companies against "anomalous or abusive usage of retail roaming services".

Other proposals to be approved included "efficient spectrum management, that will allow 4G and 5G deployment throughout Europe", added Castillo Vera. In addition, MEPs voted on net neutrality rules "to prevent telecoms companies from degrading or blocking Internet connections to their competitors' services and applications."

However, the proposed net neutrality rules continue to draw the ire of Internet rights groups, which do not believe they go far enough. While the regulation seeks to prevent practices such as blocking, it leaves open the option for telecoms operators to offer "specialised services" for which they could charge more.

According to the Open Rights Group, these are worrying loopholes that could allow the creation of a two-tiered Internet.

"By allowing ISPs to charge more for 'specialised services', the regulation would enable telecoms and other companies to buy their way to a faster Internet at the expense of individuals, start-ups and small businesses. This threatens the openness and freedom of the Internet," said Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group.

Such moves are already evident in the U.S., where Netflix agreed to pay broadband providers for faster delivery of its video services.

For their part, telecoms operators dispute that they should shoulder the burden of broadband network investments to cope with rising data traffic, and have called for Internet companies to share these costs. The fact that the report by Castillo Vera was adopted by 30 votes to 12, with 14 abstentions, also indicates that opinion is far from unanimous among the MEPs on all elements of the regulation.

The full European Parliament will vote on the single market regulation on April 3. A next step will be to strike a deal on the text with national telecoms ministers, which the Industry Committee said would be one of the first priorities for the next European Parliament, to be elected on 22-25 May.

For more:
- see this statement from the European Parliament
- see this statement from the European Commission
- see this statement from the Open Rights Group

Related Articles:
EU survey: Operators missing out on 300M roaming users
Orange joins rivals with 'complex' free inclusive roaming plans
Kroes: EU telecoms reforms still on track for 2014
Europe's telcos fight back over single market plans
European regulators unimpressed with Kroes' single market plans