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European Council considering U-turn on roaming and net neutrality

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More than 100 members of European Parliament (MEPs) have signed an open letter to the European Union’s Telecoms Council, urging it to reconsider the stance being taken on two topics of significant consequence for telecoms and ICT business across the continent: roaming and net neutrality. The Council released a statement effectively conceding that a partial U-turn may be on the cards.

A change in regulatory policy would see a more relaxed stance being taken towards roaming charges, in a statement released by the European Council. The Council is looking to extend the “phasing out” of charges until mid-2018, more than two and a half years later than initially laid out in the Roaming III regulation established in 2012. Roaming III, one of Neelie Kroes’ flagship motions in the move towards a single digital market, had previously required the abolishment of all roaming fees by the end of this year.

In the statement, the European Council appeared to backtrack on its initial target of completely doing away with roaming charges on consumers.

“The Council stance sets up a new pricing mechanism, which will make it much cheaper to use your mobile phone when travelling abroad in the EU,” it said. “Within certain limits to be determined, consumers could make and receive calls, send SMSs and use data services without paying anything extra on top of the domestic fee.”

It then went on to stipulate the limitations under which operators will then be able to levy charges against roamers.

“Once this basic roaming allowance is used up, the operator may charge a fee, but this fee will be much lower than current charges. In the case of calls made, SMSs sent and data used, the roaming fee could not in any case be higher than the maximum wholesale rate that operators pay for using the networks of other member states.  For calls received, the maximum surcharge will be the weighted average of maximum mobile termination rates across the EU.”

However, MEPs feel that such a retrograding approach to roaming will cause a significant negative impact on Europe’s Digital Single Market ambitions.

“Without a strong Telecoms Single Market, the much needed Digital Single Market cannot flourish,” they said, in an open letter to the Council of the European Union. “The Euopean Parliament urged an end to roaming charges by the end of this year (2015). We consider proposed delays by 3 years (2018), or a suggestion to allow for 5 MB without charges per day, to lack ambition. Such outcomes will undoubtedly seriously disappoint citizens. The gap between ending roaming charges, and 5 MB per day is immeasurably large.”

The original Roaming III, as published in June 2012, stated the following with regards to roaming charges in place across Europe: “An internal telecommunications market cannot be said to exist while there are significant differences between domestic and roaming prices. Therefore the ultimate aim should be to eliminate the difference between domestic charges and roaming charges, thus establishing an internal market for mobile communication services.”

The current, albeit vague and loosely defined, proposal from the European Council, appears to contradict the underlying intentions of regulation set less than three years ago.

Meanwhile, the Council’s proposal also appears to make a limited number of concessions with regards to Net Neutrality policy. Generally speaking, the statement released by the Council adhered to the maintenance of an open Internet.

“It [the draft regulation] sets out to ensure that companies that provide internet access treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner,” it said. “It sets common rules on traffic management, so that the internet can continue to function, grow and innovate without becoming congested. Blocking or slowing down specific content or applications will be prohibited, with only a limited number of exceptions and only for as long as it is necessary.”

However, the statement does then concede that prioritisation may occur in some shape or form. “As regards services other than those providing internet access, agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.”

To which, the 100-plus MEPs requested an adherence to previous calls from the European Parliament for stronger net neutrality regulations.

“Similarly, weakened proposals on net neutrality go against the European Parliament’s repeated calls for clear definitions. We must ensure consumers are protected, innovative startups can develop and competition on the open internet is fair.”

The open letter to the Telecoms Council concluded with a plea to put an end to roaming charges and clearly define net neutrality, stressing its significance for the future of Europe’s digital economies.

“We call on you to adopt proposals that put an end to roaming charges as soon as possible, and to have clearly defined net neutrality for Europe,” it said. “Your decisions are of vital importance not only for the Telecoms Single Market, but also for the Digital Single Market. We have no time to lose in building future proof single markets for telecoms and the digital economy.”

This appears to be the start of what could well become a European equivalent of the FCC’s recent saga of net neutrality and Title II. The information released publicly at this stage appears to be deliberately vague in its nature and non-committal to future requirements, and as such the debate will likely rage on at least until the proposed regulatory reform applies in June 2016.

During Mobile World Congress 2015, Telecoms.com’s news coverage is sponsored by NEC.

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