The European Commission has put forward its set of proposals for the first step to reform the European telecoms market. Among the proposals, the long-awaited and much-debated scrapping of roaming fees makes an appearance, with a raft of changes proposed for July 2014.
The proposals also include steps towards net neutrality, creating a better market for next-generation mobile data connections including 4G and 5G, and regulations that should increase fairness for consumers taking out long-term contracts on mobile phones and broadband connections.
The proposals will now be put forward to EU member states for voting, but they have already come under criticism from multiple industry bodies and consumer groups, which have labelled the plans as "rushed".
Vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, who heads up the EC's Digital Agenda said it was impossible to reach a perfect product. "Some are saying 'take your time and do it thoroughly', I think this is not permitted for the moment.
"There are no easy or complete answers, and I don't pretend to have those. We can't wait for a perfect package which will never arrive. Failing to implement this package would mean the delay of two or two and a half years."
The eventual scrapping of roaming fees – the charges consumers face when they venture out of their phone provider's country of origin – has proved to be both the most notable and most debated part of the proposals.
The EC has long said that it wants to completely outlaw roaming fees from July 2014, and today's proposals have mostly matched its strongly worded rhetoric. From 1 July 2014, roaming charges for users receiving calls from within the EU would be banned completely. Furthermore, the mobile networks will be presented with two options: they would either be able to offer plans that apply to everywhere in the European Union, which the EC calls "roam like at home", or they would allow their customers to choose a provider which offers cheaper rates in the country they are visiting without having to purchase a new SIM card.
The proposals have met constant resistance from telecoms providers, which have claimed the regulations would eat into their margins, thus stifling further investment in upgrading their networks.
Kroes and her team have long insisted on a total ban on internet service providers (ISPs) throttling and blocking access to internet services such as video streaming and VoIP services such as Skype. The proposals unveiled today stipulate that under its rules this would indeed be the case, but adding that ISPs would be able to prioritise their own bespoke services – such as on-demand video services – so long as they "did not interfere with the internet speeds offered to other customers".
The guarantee of net neutrality is intended to allow innovative online services to develop and create a better environment for high-tech businesses which rely on high-speed internet access.
Internet freedom campaign group La Quadrature du Net has labelled Kroes' net neutrality plans as "fake", claiming she is "betraying" EU citizens by allowing ISPs to prioritise their own services.
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, said: "Mrs Kroes' draft is flawed by design to allow commercial breaches of net neutrality, through forms of discrimination which undermine our freedom of communication and are anti-competitive by nature. Rushing such measures a few months before upcoming elections is outrageous and shows the profoundly disturbing disconnection between the Commission and citizens."
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