The European Commission (EC) has agreed rules to enshrine net neutrality across Europe. However, it has also set out provisions to allow service providers to prioritise so-called ‘specialised services’.
The net neutrality rules mean there can be no blocking or throttling of content, applications or services, and no paid prioritisation of traffic. This should ensure that all EU citizens receive the best possible internet access.
However, while the EC said that this will guarantee the ‘open internet’ it will also allow ‘specialised services’ such as IPTV, high-definition video conferencing and video healthcare services, to be given preferential treatment.
The EC moved to counter accusations that this would create a ‘two-tier internet’, by noting that the ‘specialised services' can be provided only if the delivery of other content is not degraded in anyway.
“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 said.
“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.”
V3 contacted the EC for more information on how this will work but had received no reply at the time of publication.
Günther Oettinger, commissioner for the digital economy and society, said that agreeing new net neutrality rules, alongside plans to abolish roaming by 2017, were key steps in the EC’s attempt to create a flourishing telecoms landscape.
"I welcome today's crucial agreement to finally end roaming charges and establish pragmatic net neutrality rules throughout the EU. Both are essential for consumers and businesses in today’s European digital economy and society,” he said.
"We will build on these important foundations in our forthcoming review of the EU's telecoms legislation."
The move follows similar net neutrality laws being passed in the US, although those contained no provisions for specialised services and are therefore arguably stronger than those in Europe.
Adrian Baschnonga, lead telecoms analyst at EY, said the lack of coherent rules mandating the provisions included within the laws from the EU could hurt operators in the long-run.
"While operators have the scope to prioritise certain types of traffic, such as IPTV, as a route to greater service innovation, there may be penalties for breaching this nuanced set of open internet rules," he said.
"What these guidelines and penalties will actually look like, and how they will be policed and enforced, is yet to be seen so there could be a sting in the tail for operators."
Author's View: The inclusion of provisions for specialised services seems at odds with the central concept of net neutrality that all traffic for all content types and services should be treated equally.
The fact that people cannot pay for traffic to be prioritised seems to suggest that the only people who can benefit from the ability to provide certain 'key services' at a guaranteed higher quality level are internet service providers themselves.
The EC said that this can be done only if the delivery of the open internet is not affected, but this seems somewhat meaningless as it still suggests that a certain selected set of services will be given better quality delivery than everything else.
Furthermore, who is to say which services justify being given preferential treatment and why? The EC seems to have stopped short of creating true net neutrality and opened itself up for a lot more confusion and debate in the years ahead.
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