Mobile World Congress 2015 first to debate EU’s new stance on Net Neutrality and Roaming Charges

Photo from the main entrance of Fira Barcelona, where the Mobile World Congress 2015 took place last week. European Net Neutrality and Roaming Charges were part of the debate in this year's 10th edition. © European Sting

Photo from the main entrance of Fira Barcelona, where the Mobile World Congress 2015 took place last week. European Net Neutrality and Roaming Charges were part of the debate in this year’s 10th edition. © European Sting

Did you really think that Christmas 2015 would be the perfect chance to travel abroad in Europe, do your shopping in London or Paris and call your folks back home for wishes at zero roaming cost? More so, did you really think that Christmas 2015 would be the perfect chance for you to Skype with your pal without “mysterious” network delays even when your 4G signal is full? Well, you were really wrong, simply because the EU has just decided to spare European telecom operators some possible turnover loss.

Net Neutrality & Roaming Charges

The week that ended yesterday was certainly a week dedicated to the mobile and telecommunications industry of Europe. First of all, because of GSMA’s Mobile World Congress 2015, the world’s greatest congress of the mobile industry taking place in Barcelona these days and which only ended last Thursday. By the way, the European Sting just returned from its trip to Barcelona, where it was the only Brussels based EU media to officially sponsor this magnificent conference. Secondly, last Wednesday the EU Council consisting of the telecoms ministers of the EU member states launched the much awaited publication called “Telecoms Package“, a proposal that primarily tackles two key issues on the “bumpy” road to a single European Telco market, net neutrality and mobile roaming charges.

European Council’s new stance

On net neutrality the European Council’s statement goes like this: “It [the draft regulation] sets out to ensure that companies that provide internet access treat traffic in a non-discriminatory manner,”… “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.”…“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.”

On mobile roaming charge the Council said last Wednesday: “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”…“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.”…“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.”

Let’s all remember here how passionately Mrs Neelie Kroes, former Commissioner for Digital Agenda, gave her fights to ensure complete net neutrality in Europe, following the bright example of her home country, and also completely vanish roaming charges in the European Union by the end of 2015. The 74 year old Dutch politician was succeeded by Mr Günther Oettinger last November. Well, obviously if one goes back to the above excerpts of the European Council’s statement, and particularly in the sentences in bold, she will be able to understand that either Mrs Kroes was completely wrong or that Mr Oettinger has a completely different vision for the European digital agenda. Or that these two people never met for the necessary pre-succession briefing.

The critics

In any case, there is a clear intention from the European member states to block the eradication of roaming charges until 2018 and also to have a “relatively” neutral internet. Given the high expectations that Mrs Kroes had raised previously for a decisive step in 2015 toward the European single telecom market between the 28 countries, Wednesday’s publication from the Council met substantial criticism from all stakeholders, MEPs, Internet companies, net neutrality activists and European consumers all across the Old Continent; even from the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

100 MEPs against

Let’s take one “critic step” at a time though. To begin with, some 100 MEPs signed and addressed a letter towards the Council’s Telecoms Council asking them to reconsider and protect the European citizens’ rights by securing uncompromised net neutrality and zero roaming costs: “Without a strong Telecoms Single Market, the much needed Digital Single Market cannot flourish,” the good MEPs argue there… “The European 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.”…“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.”…“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.”…“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.”

ALDE & GSMA

While it is clear that it is the Council’s will to support the turnover of the local telecom providers, and thus the member states’ economies, one having read the above excerpt from the MEPs’ letter can be more than certain that the Council’s intention will possibly hit a rigid wall in the legislative. Furthermore, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) also argued in a statement last week, “Drafts that are circulating clearly demonstrates that Member States are more interested in defending the interests of their national telecom operators than creating real competition that would provide cheaper rates for citizens and businesses.” What is more, from the Internet and mobile industry side, Mrs Anne Bouverot, Director General of the GSMA, stressed that “the reduction in scope of the Connected Continent proposals to net neutrality and roaming represents a missed opportunity.”

The motive

At the same time Mr Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, made a rather clear statement at the Mobile World Congress last Tuesday on the matter: “Access to the Internet and neutrality for our consumers is an important goal,”…“The question is how to define special services on top.”. Now, what does it mean “on top services”one might ask? The answer comes straight from the powerful lobby group of the telcos, the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association’s (ETNO) statement at the Financial Times: “The Connected Continent regulation is now a set of rules on net neutrality and roaming. This makes it even more urgent to address reform of the current telecom regulation,”.. “Let’s not tie the hands of an entire industry with tight net neutrality rules. Users and business will benefit from pro-innovation and pro-investment rules”.

A 5G sacrifice

There are numerous reasons for the EU’s change of sail course concerning net neutrality and roaming charges. Anybody can see that the telcos are too important income source for the European member states; thus it is in their benefit to try not to hurt them a lot. However, there can be a deeper reason for this EU “favour” to the telecom operators. And that is the extraordinary EU focus of Oettinger’s Digital Agenda on 5G.

Like usually the EU wants to be a pioneer in something with a substantial investment, fast and furious. One could easily notice see that at the Media Village of the Mobile World Congress 2015 last Tuesday, where the Commissioner involved in the panel discussion the CTOs of the world’s biggest telcos companies; and not only European ones like Nokia but major telco players from Asia as well. It is clear that the Commission needs the telcos’ know how alignment on 5G and this, as always, comes with a price. The Telcos will not let go easily neither the fat profits of EU roaming nor the loophole to make mobile Skype calling a pain so that the user finally turns to a normal call.

Another TTIP conflict

Last, but not least, the huge European telco hot issue discussed can get even more complicated. The Council’s proposal and statement are going towards completely opposite directions in comparison to the US. It needs to be underlined here that only last week Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced the very tough US regulations to ensure net neutrality at the other side of the Atlantic. This obviously creates a collision in the telco regulatory framework between the US and the EU.

It is only certain that this week another major topic was added in the TTIP negotiations agenda of the 9th round of negotiations soon to come, and possibly another point of disagreement.

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