A package of EU telecoms reforms to secure open Internet access and ban mobile phone roaming charges moved closer to fruition Wednesday after the Council approved a deal struck with the European Parliament.
The text has now been given the nod by the permanent representatives of the 28 EU countries, and will be put to a vote in Parliament later this year, likely September or October.
But while all sides of the political spectrum and interest groups were relieved that a deal had finally been clinched — it took almost two years — there are still concerns over the potential for patchy implementation and a lack of clarity on key elements.
“The text is unclear in many cases, and that creates the risk that loopholes will be used by lawyers of major companies, to advance their interests,” said Marietje Schaake, Dutch member of European Parliament with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
On roaming, while the telecoms industry is not entirely happy, there are no surprises.
After a transition period when costs will be capped, a full ban on charges will start June 15, 2017. If wholesale costs are higher than retail, telecoms operators can plead their case to national regulators for permission to recoup them.
“The roaming rules are relatively fine,” said a telecoms source who requested anonymity. “Not because people like that they will have to scrape one or two percent of their revenues from their balance sheet at the end of 2017, but because it’s a debate that has been going on for so many years and was such a bad topic for the industry.”
The net neutrality reforms, which secure open Internet access for Europeans and require all categories of traffic to be treated equally, are more complicated.
Digital rights activists, who blasted previous versions, are on board with the final text. They say Parliament’s negotiators ensured most of their earlier worries were addressed.
“The Parliament appears to have done [in the fourth trilogue] what we were calling on them to do for some time, which was to try to get some sort of coherence into the text,” the executive director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), Joe McNamee, told POLITICO.
“If you read the text, the general principles of net neutrality are respected,” said Estelle Massé, a policy analyst at Access, a pro net-neutrality group. “There is no possibility of a slow and fast lane.”
Indeed, the new EU rules will be tougher in some respects than those introduced in the U.S. by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year.
For example, the final EU text provides tight guidelines for special services, those like e-health that may require higher-quality or faster Internet access.
The rules allow Internet Service Providers to treat this type of traffic differently, but only if it is necessary for the services’ functioning and is not being used to circumvent the rules on non-discriminatory treatment.
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Some experts have interpreted the equivalent part of the U.S. laws as being too vaguely worded.
However, both McNamee and Massé expressed disapproval that the regulation does not address the issue of zero-rating, where an operator offers free data for a specific service, for example its own video-on-demand streaming service, but not for its rivals.
Several MEPs are also miffed that they lost their fight for a zero-rating ban.
“We will still have to vote on the text and this can be amended. So the last word has not been said about [the telecoms package],” said Schaake.
Zero-rating is currently banned in two EU countries: the Netherlands and Slovenia.
Whether those countries will be able to keep that ban is in doubt. Pilar del Castillo, the Parliament’s rapporteur for the telecoms package, said the laws could stay.
But a source from the Latvian camp, in the presidency chair before Luxembourg took over on July 1, told POLITICO the laws would have to go after a grace period.
This confusion is likely to persist.
“It is too early to tell what the final impact will be, and what room for national interpretation there may be,” Schaake said. “Only after the entire cycle is over and the final vote has been taken, can we really know how the Netherlands and Slovenia might be impacted.”
Both Access and EDRi also expressed concern over the potential for patchy enforcement, with the strength of the net neutrality rules riding on the willingness of national regulators to apply them.
This is one area where net neutrality advocates and telecoms agree.
Telecoms industry types are also concerned this will mean certain regulatory authorities, like those in the Netherlands, are likely to be stricter than others, such as those in the U.K.