European lawmakers on Thursday approved new rules that aim to assure equal access to the Internet. The new mandates also work to slash smartphone charges in the 28-state European Union.
The EU's Industry Committee has decided that Internet providers should not be able to block, slow down or otherwise hinder Internet services their competitors provide over their networks. The new rules to protect Net neutrality are part of the latest EU telecom package legislation.
Members of the European Parliament (MEP) also voted against so-called cellular roaming charges, which rack up costs for using phones in another country within the European Union. That rule would go into effect on Dec. 15, 2015, giving carriers plenty of time to adjust their practices.
"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," said Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner responsible for telecommunications. "This is what the EU is all about -- getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive."
What the Rules Mean
In 2012, the EU's Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications reported that several Internet providers were blocking or slowing down bandwidth-hogging services like Skype. That led MEPs to approve strict rules that prevent selective restrictions, which harm consumers.
Under the new rules, companies can still offer higher-quality specialized services, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive applications, as long as it does not interfere with the Internet speeds promised to other customers. There is one exception that allows measures to block or slow down the Internet, but only in exceptional cases -- if the move is court ordered.
"With today's Industry Committee vote the European Parliament has taken one great step towards consolidating the telecommunications single market," said Pilar del Castillo Vera, who leads Parliament's work with the package. "The committee has not only proposed abolishing retail roaming charges for voice, SMS and data by 15 December 2015, but also tabled substantive proposals, e.g. on efficient spectrum management, that will allow 4G and 5G deployment throughout Europe."
Del Castillo Vera went on to explain how the Industry Committee has built in more safeguards to guarantee Internet openness by making sure users can run and provide the applications and services they want. She is convinced the measures will strengthen the Internet as a "key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, social development and innovation."
Roaming Charge Exceptions
A broad majority of the committee members backed plans to ban roaming charges within the EU. However, to protect telecom companies against "anomalous or abusive usage of retail roaming services," MEPs asked the European Commission to pen guidelines for exceptional cases. Even then, the charges would have to be below the caps laid down in current roaming rules.
Finally, lawmakers paved the way for a faster mobile Internet. With pressure on available radio spectrum frequencies stretching resources to the limit, MEPs introduced amendments crafted to make it easier to trade in and lease spectrum rights. These rights should be valid for at least 25 years, they decided, to encourage investment, innovation and competition.
Of course, it's not a done deal yet. The telecom package is set for a final Parliament endorsement. Lawmakers said striking a deal on the text with national telecom ministers will be one of the first priorities for the next Parliament, to be elected May 22-25.