Europe has finally reached an agreement on the telecoms rules for its Digital Single Market agenda with representatives of the European Parliament and national Governments thrashing out the details at the European Commission at the end of June.

The big news story was that roaming premiums within the EU will be gone by 2017. This will mean that using your phone abroad will cost no more than it does at home. The decision has been hailed as a great success by those now tasked with seeing through the reforms which were first tabled two years (and two EC Directors – Kroes and Reding) ago but which have been in planning for a decade.

Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the EC

Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the EC

Welcoming the agreement Andrus Ansip, Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, said: “Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for net neutrality rules. 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.”

However, it’s not all plain sailing and there were also decisions made which are not so promising for the global telecoms market. There are fears the EC has now essentially dropped the Single Market element of its roaming proposals in order to gain the big win of eliminating fees.

Since July last year, operators have been mandated to support access to their systems for Alternative Roaming Providers – these proposed entitles are supposed to be able to provide competitive roaming tariffs to “home” operators, however none have arisen. The reasoning behind this is because eliminating the roaming premium does away with the business case need to set up an ARP. The only way an ARP could compete with a normal contract provider would be if it was offering cheaper deals and that would be very hard to make profitable within the very competitive wholesale market where the operators are already able to offer group deals and swaps to encourage customer loyalty.

The agreement also enshrines for the first time the principle of net neutrality into EU law. Users will be free to access the content of their choice, they 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 will not be unfairly slowed down to make the way for bigger companies. No service will be stuck because it does not pay an additional fee to Internet service providers. There won’t be gatekeepers to decide what you can and cannot access.

In the open Internet, all traffic will be treated equally, subject to strict and clearly identified public-interest exceptions, such as network security or combating child pornography, and subject to efficient day-to-day network management by Internet service providers.

In parallel, Internet access providers will still be able to offer specialised services of higher quality, such as Internet TV and new innovative applications, so long as these services are not supplied at the expense of the quality of the open Internet.

The EU will have the strongest and most comprehensive open Internet rules in the world, complete with strong end-user rights to ensure that subscribers get what they pay for. These rules will be a reality across all Member States as soon as the text officially applies on April 30 next year.

These common EU-wide Internet rules will avoid fragmentation in the single market, creating legal certainty for businesses and making it easier for them to work across borders says the EC.

However, according to an article in the Inside Mobile Network newsletter, this isn’t quite so simple. It states: “Also hailed was a win for agreement on net neutrality, although here many of the big decisions were in fact parked for further study. Not least amongst these was how far certain exemptions would stretch. There would be guaranteed fast lanes, but we mustn’t call them fast lanes, for certain applications that demand better performance. These fast lanes must not impinge on “open” internet access for all other services and applications.

“How is that going to work in a physical contended, network? Unless there is unlimited access, if you partition the network off to guarantee certain service levels for certain services, you must by definition be acting in a discriminatory manner.”

The article also claims the decision to ban permanent roaming is another blow to the ideas of a Single Market. The idea behind the Single Market is that customers from countries where the cost of a mobile is more expensive could get a SIM from cheaper, foreign country and then use it permanently. The telecoms companies, quite understandably, weren’t happy about customers having access to this sort of usage and so caps will be applied to people deemed to be roaming outside their normal country of residence. It means there will be rules in place to support different tiers within what was supposed to be a Single Market.

And finally, the application at a network level of content filters and controls has been subordinated to existing national provisions so content providers, operators and the service providers themselves, still have different rules to abide by.

The EC had claimed its rules would “avoid fragmentation in the Single Market, creating legal certainty for businesses and making it easier for them to work across borders.”

But the implication for mobile operators is that services at a network level which provider filters and blocks, for example parental controls, are not now exempt on an EU wide basis from net neutrality provisions. Providers of anti-spam and control gateways and engines will need to talk to their customers to ensure any such services do not put operators in a legally ambivalent position. National provisions do remain in place, however, so the impact will be mitigated.

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