By Steve McCaskill
Roaming within the European Union (EU) is to be abolished from 2017, while the principles of net neutrality will be enshrined into European law.
The European Commission claims the new regulations will accelerate the creation of a new Digital Single Market, fostering innovation, protecting consumers and allowing businesses to compete on a level playing field.
European governments had blocked plans to abolish roaming earlier, possibly this December, and there had been fears additional charges would be levied until 2018. Member states wanted legislation to include usage thresholds after which additional fees could be charged by operators.
Under the new rules, from July 1, 2017, E.U. mobile users will pay the same for calls, texts and data as they would in their home country, with "fair use" limits introduced to prevent citizens from abusing the system by purchasing SIM cards with cheaper tariffs from abroad. These 'fair use' limits are still to be determined by the European Union.
The European Union says consumers will benefit from cheaper roaming, while operators will be able to take advantage of increased demand. It adds that the new regulations pave the way for innovations like connected cars and other new types of mobile application that are no longer subject to national borders.
"Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for net neutrality rules," said Andrus Ansip, Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market. "They have been heard. 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."
New European laws on net neutrality will forbid ISPs from charging content providers additional fees for preferential treatment, allowing startups to create innovative applications on a level playing field with larger competitors.
The European Union said the principle of a high quality open Internet was "crucial" for European consumers and businesses and that a system of 28 different national laws was simply unworkable in a single market.
"The freedom of European citizens to access or distribute Internet content must not depend on the country in which they are," it said. "Having an E.U. law on net neutrality will avoid further fragmentation of telecoms regulation in Europe."
However, ISPs will be able to manage traffic on their networks in a number of circumstances, such as blocking malware, viruses, DDoS attacks or to filter spam, or if the police or a court order requires the takedown of illegal content. ISPs can also manage traffic due to exceptional or temporary high demand, but not because of consistent low capacity or poor infrastructure.
Back Door Prioritization?
The rules do, however, allow ISPs to provide "more innovative services" with certain levels of bandwidth so long as they do not affect the needs of other users.
"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," said the EU. "It is not a question of fast lanes and slow lanes¾as paid prioritization 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.
The European Union claims its net neutrality rules are the strongest in the world because users will be able to terminate contracts if they are throttled or denied quality service. National regulators will be responsible for enforcing the regulations, with the power to dish out appropriate penalties for infringement.
The issue of net neutrality has been a controversial one with ISPs and network manufacturers arguing such regulations will stifle innovation, while campaigners have argued for the principles of an open Internet to be enshrined in law. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently introduced net neutrality guidelines earlier this year.