Europe To End Mobile Roaming By 2017, But Backs An Internet ‘Fast Lane’

The European Union has agreed a preliminary deal to scrap mobile roaming charges across the region by June 2017. The European Parliament previously voted to scrap roaming fees by the end of this year — but the European Council pushed to keep them in place until the end of 2018. The European lawmakers have now apparently agreed a third way of mid 2017.

Roaming charges will also be significantly reduced by next summer, with data roaming fees capped at five cents per megabyte, calls capped at five cents per minute, and SMS capped at two cents per text.

The deal was agreed late last night — the culmination of multi-year negotiations between the European Commission, Council and Parliament. The package they have agreed will now be put to representatives from the 28 European Member State counties for confirmation. The agreed text has not yet been published.

The negotiations are part of Europe’s Telecoms Single Market initiative, set out back in 2013, with the grand aim of boosting the region’s global competitiveness and fostering digital jobs by reducing market fragmentation. The original plan also aimed to reform and harmonize spectrum auctions. But that proposal fell by the wayside during the years of wrangling required to get to today’s consensus agreement.

Permanent roaming will incur “fair use” fee

In order to avoid the scenario whereby a person living in one European country obtains a SIM from another European country where an operator offers cheaper tariffs than are available in their home market and uses that SIM at home to ‘permanently roam’ (i.e. instead of paying for service from a domestic carrier) the agreement includes a “fair use” clause that will allow operators to charge “a small basic fee”.

Another ‘unfair competition’ scenario the MEPs are aiming to rein in here is where someone moves abroad but retains cell service from their domestic carrier.

An EC factsheet notes:

These unusual behaviours are also called ‘permanent roaming’ and could have a negative impact on domestic prices, and ultimately on consumers.Once that limit is reached while being abroad, a small basic fee can be charged. This will be much lower than current caps (maximum prices that operators can charge consumers for roaming in the EU) and is likely to decrease even further. The Commission has been mandated to define the details of the fair use limit.

It’s not clear at this point how much operators will be able to charge, and at what point the fair use policy will kick in. The European Parliament held a press conference on the agreement today, and MEPs were asked where the limit is between roaming and fair use — whether, for instance, a three month holiday or five month holiday would be considered fair use or not? There was no real clarity on this point.

“You can use it when you are roaming. You can be for three months, you can be for five months, this is not the problem. The problem is when you are living in your country and you are using this possibility of having, for example, a SIM card for the normal part of consumption you have in your own country. It is not when you are outside,” said ITRE rapporteur Pilar del Castillo Vera.

She added that it will be for the European Commission to define this in a “more detailed manner”.

“We wanted to avoid unfair competition in our market,” added Jerzy Buzek, chair of the ITRE Committee. “It is very, very difficult. Our task, our goal was to do something for our citizens — they would like to move around European Union, to work in different places, go for holidays and to avoid roaming charges. The same for business, especially for small and medium business. But it’s also very important for our operators. We wouldn’t like to kill our operators. That was very difficult to find a proper agreement. Because we would like to have no charges.”

Net neutrality threat from Internet fast lane?

As well as roaming, the agreement concerns net neutrality — aka the principle that all network traffic should be treated equally. The European version of net neutrality agreed within the telecoms package is not as strict as the U.S., with carriers allowed to prioritize certain types of “specialized services” so long as “general” Internet access does not suffer.

So MEPs are effectively creating a distinction between a general open Internet, and a tier on top of that which accelerates the performance of certain services if their creators pay to join this fast lane. (Not that MEPs are calling their creation a “fast lane” — rather they say it’s about “making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized and that no one is forced to pay for a service that is not needed”.)

Politico reports there was “heated debate” between the European Parliament and Council on this point — such as whether carriers should be able to “sequester parts of their networks for specialized services, such as e-health provision” — culminating in the compromise described above.

Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for the digital economy, dubbed the net neutrality rules agreed in the trilogue discussions as “pragmatic”.

In an EC factsheet the Commission specifies that the net neutrality agreement prohibits “blocking, throttling, degradation or discrimination of Internet traffic by Internet service providers” — with exceptions in the following cases: if blocking is required for legal reasons/by court orders; for combating cyber attacks on networks; for spam filtering and to offer parental content locks; (the EC subsequently corrected its factsheet to remove this exception “as this was not agreed”) and for minimizing network congestion but only where that congestion is “temporary or exceptional” — so this exception can’t be invoked for networks that are  “frequently congested due to under-investment and capacity scarcity”.

On the so-called “specialized services” which MEPs are saying should be allowed to buy access to “enhanced quality of service” from network providers, provided those providers do not harm “the open Internet access” (as it puts it), the EC has this to say:

These are services like IPTV, high-definition videoconferencing or healthcare services like telesurgery. They use the Internet protocol and the same access network but require a significant improvement in quality or the possibility to guarantee some technical requirements to their end-users that cannot be ensured in the best-effort open Internet. The possibility to provide innovative services with enhanced quality of service is crucial for European start-ups and will boost online innovation in Europe. However, such services must not be a sold as substitute for the open Internet access, they come on top of it.

Every European must be able to have access to the open Internet and all content and service providers will be able to provide their services via a high-quality open Internet. But more and more innovative services require a certain transmission quality in order to work properly, such as telemedicine or automated driving. These and other services that can emerge in the future can be developed as long as they do not harm the availability and the quality of the open Internet.

Therefore it is important to have future proof rules which, while fully safeguarding the open Internet, allow market operators to provide services with specific quality requirements in order to provide them in safe manner. It is not a question of fast lanes and slow lanes – as paid prioritisation is not allowed, but of making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized and that no one is forced to pay for a service that is not needed.

Does that constitute a two-tier Internet? The EC claims not, however Ars Technica‘s Glyn Moody is scathing in his assessment — arguing this sanctioning of a fast lane for some Internet services will tilt the playing field in favor of companies with the greatest resources, i.e. those who can pay telcos to have their services delivered quicker, leaving less well resourced startup businesses lagging.

“If a service is not critical, it would not need to be prioritised over traditional internet offerings. If people wanted better connectivity for that “internet TV” service, they could upgrade their whole connection, not just pay a premium for the “specialised services” part. In other words, the argument for “specialised services” does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the real motivation behind introducing the concept is simply that telecoms want to be able to charge those offering online services extra for preferential delivery,” writes Moody.

Zero rating gets zero censure

On the issue of zero rating — aka the practice of allowing some services to be consumed for free on a network (which effectively creates a two tier scenario, based on free to use vs costs money to use) — the MEPs also roll over in favor of telcos, arguing it “does not block competing content and can promote a wider variety of offers for price-sensitive users, give them interesting deals, and encourage them to use digital services”.

The only guidance they offer here is that regulators should monitor use of zero rating to ensure consumer choice is not significantly reduced.

Speaking during today’s press conference on the agreement, del Castillo Vera argued the telecoms agreement achieved a “balanced” position on net neutrality.

“I wouldn’t define it as rigid, as strict, I think it’s balanced, which is the key one for me,” she said in response to a question about how strict the new rules are. “I don’t think it’s stronger than others in some countries [which the EC factsheet in fact claims]. Indeed, it is not the zero rating provisions because we also decided to drop out the zero rating proposal… It is balanced because you have all the warranties for end user in Internet, it is balanced because you have all the warranties for the everyday traffic management based on technical parameters, it is balanced because you have the specialized services that every time more and more — in such an evolving environment as is the Internet — are developing.

“You have to think, not only of the classical ones which is health and something like this but things in the automobile industry for example. It is an industry that every time more and more needs special specifications, special ways of attending the demand in order to for example [remove] latency. Latency is classic for them. You have to have this one millisecond in order to develop automobile new technologies based on mobile broadband and so on. All these things and so many things to come in the Internet, so it’s balanced also because then special services has also the room.”