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Regulators given green light on EU net neutrality rules

EU telecoms regulator BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) has published its finalized guidelines this week on how NRAs (National Regulatory Authorities) should go about implementing new net neutrality rules, after a lengthy process of juggling more than 480,000 industry contributions.

The European Parliament wants clear rules to prevent internet access providers from promoting some services at the expense of others, and last year it adopted net neutrality regulations which were blasted for being far more lenient than those in the US. BEREC has stressed that its revised guidelines aim to provide a balance between giving consumers freedom while at the same time not going overboard on restricting operators.

Concerning zero rating, the practice of exempting some apps or types of traffic from counting towards a user’s monthly data allowance, the guidelines now say that NRAs should allow some commercial practices such as accessing an ISP’s service portal to purchase more data when a user has reached their data cap.

The guidelines note that an ISP could offer zero rating for an entire category of applications, such as all music streaming services, but cannot apply this to specific applications, such as its own streaming service – much like T-Mobile’s BingeOn service in the US. This is because this practice creates an economic incentive to use one service over another. BEREC therefore says the practice of applying zero rating to specific applications is more likely to “undermine the essence of an end users’ rights” or lead to circumstances where “end users’ choice is materially reduced in practice.”

On the other hand, once you close a market, and advantage existing players by allowing zero rating, it makes it tough to undo the damage at a later date when all video wants to travel OTT. This will become a more serious issue in the US over the coming months, following the news earlier this year that Dish will be joined by DirecTV in offering OTT content on any broadband line.

Another BEREC guideline revision is the addition of the category “5G services using network slicing” as one of the specialized services which telcos can offer, which also includes VoLTE as a category. However, BEREC reinforces that these services must not connect to the internet and must not constitute an alternative for an internet access service.

The rules state that ISPs can only block or slow down internet traffic in three areas of exception; compliance with other laws, preservation of integrity and security, and congestion management issues. It was just two years ago when BEREC reported that several ISPs were blocking or slowing down services like Skype, used to make phone calls over the internet – and this swiftly became an illegal practice.

Immediately after BEREC’s announcement this week, the association for broadband cable operators, Cable Europe, jumped straight in with criticism – urging NRAs to take caution and claiming the guidelines will stifle innovation.

Such is the desperation of European telcos that in July this year, a group of 17 operators bizarrely proposed that the European Commission should water down its net neutrality rules in exchange for an enhanced push in the development of 5G technologies. The group included BT, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia and Vodafone, according to the Financial Times.

BEREC says that in the future it will foster the ongoing exchange of experiences by NRAs of their implementation of the regulations.

BEREC received 481,547 contributions before the deadline on July 18th, including those from respondents in civil society, public institutions and independent experts, ISPs, content and application providers and other industry stakeholders.

European Commission VP Andrus Ansip and European commissioner Günther Oettinger said jointly in a statement, “our rules, and today’s guidelines, avoid fragmentation in the single market, create legal certainty for businesses and make it easier for them to work across border. They also ensure that the internet remains an engine for innovation and that advanced technologies and Internet of Things services like connected vehicles as well as 5G applications are developed today, and will flourish in the future.”

Matthias Kurth, Executive Chairman of Cable Europe, said, “we believe that the ambitions of the Digital Single Market strategy are shared by industry and legislators alike. We recognize that the potential for digital transformation must not be fettered by overly prescriptive rules that will stifle innovation and put lead boots on the boundless potential of our digital technology.

“Much rests now on the use of these guidelines by regulators, which whilst allowing National Regulatory Authorities the necessary autonomy could result in a negative outcome for progressive innovation. We urge the NRAs to embrace the ambitions of the Digital Single Market, and look forward to working with them as we turn the potential of Europe’s digital future into a reality,” added Kurth.

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