European MEPs meeting at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 27 October 2015, have adopted an agreement concluded after two years of negotiations with the Council of the EU on the regulation on the single market for electronic communications. In turning down any amendment to the text, the MEPs adopted the Council's position on first reading.
This text provides for the progressive phasing out of roaming charges for mobile telephones by 15 June 2017 as well as the introduction of the first EU rules aiming to safeguard open Internet access, thereby ensuring Internet neutrality.
"With these two achievements, the co-legislators, with the Commission's invaluable support, have succeeded in bringing Europe closer to its citizens", noted Minister Nicolas Schmit, who heads up relations with the European Parliament during the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union, at a press conference following the vote. He remarked on an "important milestone" achieved with the adoption of this regulation described as an "essential condition for completing the digital internal market".
The European Parliament's Rapporteur for the legislative project, Pilar Del Castillo Vera (EPP), for her part stated that thanks to this regulation, Europe would become "the only region in the world to legally ensure fair access" to the Internet. In her view, the end of roaming charges is equivalent to the abolition of a "tax" on the free circulation of people within the European area and which would constitute a hindrance for businesses wanting to invest beyond national borders.
Günther Oettinger, the European Commissioner in charge of the Digital Economy and Society, welcomed the scrapping of "disproportionate charges" which do not "correspond to actual costs". He expressed the view that it represents a good compromise that will benefit citizens and EU competitiveness.
Abolition of Roaming Charges by mid-2017
Under the agreement, roaming charges will be scrapped in the EU on 15 June 2017, with Minister Schmit noting a "historic result" while "roaming charges were one of most obvious lacunae in the internal market".
The agreement provides, however, that roaming service providers may apply a fair usage policy ("fair use" clause) to prevent abuse in this regard. In the event of abuse, a surcharge – which may not be higher than the wholesale maximum price that operators pay to use the networks of other EU countries – may be applied. The ceiling of fair use will be defined by the Commission by 15 December 2016.
"Once the abolition of roaming charges is in place, abuse must be avoided", Nicolas Schmit stated. The fact that domestic prices are not the same throughout the EU made it necessary to introduce such a clause.
The application of surcharges would also be possible in exceptional circumstances, when roaming service providers would not be able to cover all the costs associated with the provision of these services, on the authorisation of the national regulatory authority.
Finally, for the abolition of roaming charges to be viable throughout the entire EU, wholesale rates currently practised must be scaled down, according to the draft legislation. To that end, the Commission has been mandated to review the wholesale roaming market and propose fresh legislation by 15 June 2016. Furthermore, guarantees will be set up to regulate the question of recouping costs by the operators.
The cheapest roaming by 2016
The compromise provides for a transition period which will commence on 30 April 2016, the date from which charges will begin to fall, "so as to allow operators to adapt". "Otherwise there may be the risk of an increase in domestic prices, with consumers once again losing out", Nicolas Schmit said. The maximum surcharge will now be 0.05 euros per minute a call, to 0.02 euros per SMS and 0.05 euros per Megabyte of data , four times lower than the current rates, according to rapporteur Pilar Del Castillo Vera.
These amounts correspond to the maximum wholesale tariffs currently practised. As to received calls, the maximum surcharge will be the weighted average of maximum mobile call termination rates in the EU, to be set out by the Commission by the end of 2015.
Protecting the open Internet
Nicolas Schmit also welcomed the inclusion, "for the first time in European law", of the Internet neutrality principle in EU law. The law stipulates that access operators will have to treat all traffic equally and without discrimination, restriction or hindrance, regardless of the sender and recipient, the content consulted or sent, and the applications or services used. They should therefore treat all types of traffic in exactly the same manner. The text also establishes the principle of the right of users to access the content of their choice and to distribute it on the Internet.
Günther Oettinger welcomed the fact that Europe was the first continent to adopt a European legal regime on the basis of a democratic vote which guarantees each citizen fair access to the Internet "without discrimination" and which enables investors to "see things more clearly". He welcomed the European-wide legislation replacing 28 different legislative regimes, while pointing out that certain Member States had not even legislated for this issue, leading to a risk of discrimination against citizens.
Operators may, however, apply reasonable traffic management measures to ensure that the Internet runs smoothly. These measures should be based on objective technical requirements and not on commercial considerations, and should be transparent, non discriminatory and proportionate. In addition they should not involve the monitoring of the content of private individuals. Blocking or throttling services will not be authorised except in a limited number of cases, for example in the face of a cyber-attack or to deal with temporary exceptional traffic congestion on the network.
Nicolas Schmit believes "we have found a balanced solution" on this subject, who pointed out that it would ensure that the "Internet is open, and can operate from day to day, fostering innovation and the dynamic development of the Internet". Moreover, each user will from now on have "guaranteed access to the online content of their choice, without this being dictated by the Internet provider", he stated, and "operators may only manage traffic in the sole interest of the smooth running of the net".
Furthermore, "we preserve the possibility to innovate on the Internet", he said."Start-ups will be able to offer innovative services to all Internet users [and] at the same time make it possible to supply guaranteed quality services by electronic communications networks", the Minister continued. He also noted that national regulators would have "an important role to play" in both compliance and "balanced and coherent" application across the 28 EU Member-States.
"Preferential treatment" for services that are in the general interest
Agreements on services requiring a level of quality data for specific content will be authorised when optimisation is necessary. But operators will need to ensure the general quality of Internet services.
Günther Oettinger stated that this "preferential treatment" is set aside for services that are in the general interest, citing as examples emergency services, mobility or health and that the Commission relied on the recommendations from BEREC, the organisation for European regulators in the electronic communications domain.
The Commissioner regretted that there is still no agreement on harmonisation at European level on auctioning frequencies, which is organised at a national level. In his view, there will be no "revolution" in mobile communication without granting cross-border licences for using the spectrum. Günther Oettinger announced that the Commission will include this subject in its work programme for the coming year, while stressing the need to ensure a pan-European communication and scrapping "off network areas".