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Roaming charges and net neutrality – legislative proposals on a telecommunications single market

Nessa attending meeting of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee Sept 2014

Blog

Friday 24 Jul 2015

A deal to ban surcharges (“roaming fees”) for making mobile phone calls, sending text messages or using the internet while abroad in another EU country from 15 June 2017 was struck by MEPs and EU ministers on 30th June. 

Supporters of the deal say that it includes guarantees that all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination.  In other words that ‘net neutrality’ or open internet without borders will be a reality across EU member states.

Other critique the deal saying MEPs voted through a better resolution in 2014, and that the EU proposals agreed on the 30th June are much weaker, vague and incomplete – allowing internet service providers to abuse the rules and arbitrarily decide whom to grant facilities for specialised services of higher quality’ (in the proposal’s wording) as necessary, and also that the penalties will not be sufficiently deterring.

To enter into force, this deal needs to be formally endorsed by the full Parliament and the Council of Ministers. It is expected that MEPs will vote on the agreed text at the October plenary in Strasbourg.

Background

An open internet

Net neutrality is excellent as a principle but we must keep in mind that the technological complexities involved, fast pace of change and the budding regulatory efforts to catch up with it mean that, even without regulations departing from that model, the access enjoyed by content on the internet is not absolutely equal and neutral as it exists.

So the use of the term net neutrality is a bit of a misnomer, as the issue can be framed as how and when the internet service providers abuse their increasingly large size and small number to squeeze content providers into network bottlenecks so as to offer premium content delivery networks as a product, at a cost, where you pay for faster speeds.

Big internet content players, be it Google or other household names, already have significant fast track access to through direct connections to major internet service providers and dedicated servers in their premises.

Oligopolistic forms of control by an ever narrower number of internet service providers are a problem, as they allow those to dictate their terms to the content disseminators, usually to the detriment of small players.

As recently as a decade ago, internet traffic was originated more evenly across thousands of outfits, which has narrowed to the point that about half of all internet traffic is generated by about 30 giants such as Google, Facebook, Netflix and others.

The colossal amount of data they generate is so overwhelming that it cannot be accommodated without special facilities that bypass the generic physical hardware through direct access for content delivery to consumers by the internet service providers.

These have become increasingly common over the past half-decade, and all the video streaming that nowadays competes and may take over television would not be feasible without these.

Situation in US

The US Federal Communications Commission has moved ahead and reclassified internet service providers to prevent preferential treatment and to be able to set rates. The internet service providers have accommodated the big content providers on what amounts to an open and equal basis, like a de facto utility, as they too stood to gain from offering their customers fast access to series, films, youtube videos, etc, while keeping that sort of traffic out of their networks, on dedicated lanes.

[i] Cheaper mobile calls and open internet: MEPs and ministers strike informal deal (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+IM-PRESS+20150630IPR72111+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN)

[ii] http://www.socialistsanddemocrats.eu/newsroom/labour-meps-welcome-end-eu-roaming-charges-and-ban-two-speed-internet