The European Union finally reached an agreement last week to end roaming charges for people travelling within its 28 member countries as of June 2017. After 12 hours of negotiation the Latvian presidency reached a provisional deal last Tuesday with the European Parliament on new rules to end mobile phone roaming fees and safeguard open internet access, also known as net neutrality rules.
In a few words, the agreement means that “you can use your mobile device when travelling in the EU paying the same prices as at home”, as explained the European Commission explained in a statement. So basically if someone pays for a monthly volume of minutes, SMS and data in his country, any voice call, SMS and data session he will make while travelling abroad in one of the EU’s member states will be deducted as if he was at home, with no extra charges. Although last week’s agreement has been warmly welcomed and brought optimism around the progress of the EU digital agenda, the last few days have shown how criticism and concerns are still present.
The agreement is only a preliminary stage and still needs to be formally approved by the other governments and the European Parliament before it can be signed in as law, but still this represents a big step towards a digital single market. In the meantime, roaming fees will already go down in 2016: on April 30 next year the current retail caps will be replaced by a maximum surcharge of €0.05 per minute for calls, € 0.02 for SMSs and € 0.05 per megabyte for data.
The European Commission also announced that it will “introduce for the first time rules safeguarding the open Internet in the EU”. “Users will be free to access the content of their choice”, the EU explained in an official statement. “They [the users] will not be unfairly blocked or slowed down anymore, and paid prioritisation will not be allowed”. This means, for example, that the access to a start-up’s website would not be unfairly slowed down to make way for bigger companies.
A warm welcome
Andrus Ansip, Commission’s Vice-President for Digital Single Market, warmly welcomed the agreement and said: “Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for net neutrality rules. They have been heard”. Vice-President Ansip, who repeatedly mentioned the need of roaming charges abolishment at the European Business Summit in Brussels, last May, also added: “We still have a lot of work ahead of us to create a Digital Single Market. Our plans to make it happen were fully endorsed by Heads of State and Government last week, and we should move faster than ever on this.”
Günther Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, echoed him on the topic: “I welcome today’s crucial agreement to finally end roaming charges and establish pragmatic net neutrality rules throughout the EU. Both are essential for consumers and businesses in today’s European digital economy and society”.
Many open points
As anticipated, last week’s agreement didn’t encounter only positive reviews. Critics have fiercely argued the new net neutrality laws, which would allegedly drag a lot of ambiguity around the matter. For instance, the new regulation would let broadband companies charge users in parallel for higher quality, dedicated connections for services such as video streaming or “innovative” applications, even though the rule’s aim is to treat “all traffic equally”. Moreover, broadband companies will be still allowed to set their own restrictions, while the European Parliament pushed for a totally open system.
In the US, for instance, where net neutrality has become one of the hottest points of discussion in the last years, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted last February to introduce the stringent net neutrality guideline, while here in the EU the brand new agreement could leave room for internet providers to dodge true net neutrality.
Also, many believe that actually 2017 might not be the final date for such a goal, and this could be the heaviest block to be removed. Apparently, a few, structural changes to the industry are needed to get rid of roaming charges entirely, which are reportedly more than one and a half year away from being completed. For instance, no significant change is likely to come as long as a more harmonised management of radio spectrum at EU level is not implemented.
Years of negotiations
The discussion about exorbitant roaming charges in the EU started already in 2013, although the elimination of roaming charges within the EU has been something under discussion for the last eight years. After the mentioned discussions in 2013, two years of negotiations, talks and U-turns followed, during which some clashes between the European parliament and EU governments took place. The reason is simple, as it is quite easy to see how the Governments of the Member States were (and still are) concerned regarding the financial impact on their national telecoms groups after the abolition of roaming charges.
Indeed initial plans to discard roaming had been planned to become effective at the end of 2015, but were blocked last March by the European Council, whose members are the Ministers of national governments. The same analysts that saw that move as a symptom of a retrograding approach are now worried that there could be another U-turn from the EU, which may then cause a significant negative impact on Europe’s Digital Single Market ambitions.
A true EU digital union?
The scrapping of roaming charges would represent a significant move towards digital union for sure, but still cutting cellphone roaming charges while allowing companies to potentially charge extra for access to their networks doesn’t look like a real revolution. At the same time, many national governments still oppose to such changes, because they say that control of domestic airwaves is a national issue, not a European one.
As long as this is a widespread belief, a true digital single market is quite far from seeing the light in the Old Continent.