EU flags in front of European Commission
April 4, 2014

EU Votes To Ban Roaming Charges, Enact Net Neutrality

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

European lawmakers voted on Thursday to end international roaming charges beginning in December 2015, part of a broader set of reforms aimed at overhauling the EU’s telecom regulatory framework.

Most of Europe’s mobile operators charge extra fees for using a mobile phone to call, send text messages or access the Internet in another EU country, which drives up the costs of these services to consumers. A recent poll by the European Commission found that more than 25 percent of Europeans switch their phones off when traveling out of their home country to avoid high roaming charges.

For the past seven years, the EU has been forcing these prices down by placing a cap on the charges wireless operators can impose, and reducing that limit each year.

"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens. This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive,” said European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes in a statement.

“Nearly all of us depend on mobile and Internet connections as part of our daily lives. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped-off, and we should have the opportunity to change our mind. Companies should have the chance to serve all of us, and this regulation makes it easier for them to do that. It’s win-win.”

The new regulation now goes before the 28 EU member states for review and approval, something the Commission said it expects to have finalized by the end of this year.

"In 2010 I promised to end roaming charges by the end of 2015, and now we are one step away from achieving that result. Beyond the highly visible barrier of roaming we are now close to removing many other barriers so Europeans can enjoy open, seamless communications wherever they are,” Kroes said.

Pilar del Castillo, a center-right Spanish MEP who led the legislation through parliament, said the vote would help move the telecom industry forward.

"We've just passed a resolution on a proposal which is absolutely necessary and will make a great contribution to developing the European telecommunications market," Pilar del Castillo told The Wall Street Journal.

"We're ending roaming for calls, [texts] and data, that's what consumers are going to hear today."

Members of Parliament approved Ms. del Castillo's report by a 534-25 vote, with 58 abstentions.

They also voted in favor of a more robust set of amendments submitted by the Socialist, Green and Liberal parties on provisions relating to "net neutrality,” which would force Internet service providers to give equal treatment to all forms of traffic, regardless of content, location or device.

The issue had been fiercely debated ahead of the vote, particularly with respect to so-called specialized services such as streaming video or secure virtual private networks for businesses, which Internet services often sell at a premium.

The Commission had said these services would only be allowed if they did not degrade the quality of other users' Internet service. But some lawmakers sought to restrict their availability even further.

"We managed to introduce a precise definition of specialized services so that they are not confused with Internet access services," said Socialist MEP Catherine Trautmann after the vote reports the Wall Street Journal's Frances Robinson.

The MEPs said that Internet service providers should only be allowed to block or slow down traffic to enforce a court order, preserve network security or prevent temporary network congestion.

Furthermore, if such measures are used, they must be "transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate" and "not be maintained longer than necessary,” the lawmakers said.

Thursday’s vote to ban mobile roaming fees and institute net neutrality was part of broader legislation aimed at overhauling the EU’s telecom regulatory framework, which includes measures to boost consumer rights and change the way EU member states allocate spectrum to wireless operators.

Telecom operators were generally unhappy with the new regulations, warning they could result in lower quality Internet services for everyone.

The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) called the laws "a step in the wrong direction," and urged EU member states to reign in some of the more onerous regulations.

The GSM Association, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, told The Journal that the new laws would "further compromise investment and hinder innovation," although it did praise the provisions relating to wireless spectrum allocation.