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EU lawmakers approve tough 'net neutrality' rules

Proposed rules would cut cellphone charges, ending roaming charges across Europe

Mark Scott & James Kanter  |  London 

European lawmakers approved new rules on Thursday aimed at guaranteeing equal access to the Internet and cutting cellphone charges across the 28-member European Union.

The proposals, which had been subject to intense lobbying by industry groups and consumer advocates, mirror similar efforts in the US to allow access by all companies and individuals to the Internet's pipelines for services like streaming music, on-demand television and cloud computing.

The new legislation, which aims to create a single market for electronic communications across the bloc, faces more hurdles before it can become law.

The next European Parliament, to be elected in May, would still need to give a final endorsement of the rules, and individual countries would need to reach agreement with the Parliament and the European Commission on a reconciled version of the proposed law.

Any future horse trading, particularly over how telecom giants charge Internet companies for access to their data networks, may lead to changes in the final rules after domestic politicians and regulators provide feedback for the Pan-European proposals.

Despite the uncertainty, Internet companies and consumer advocacy groups voiced support on Thursday for the new rules, while telecom companies said the changes would potentially curtail investment in the Continent's mobile and fixed-line Internet infrastructure.

European politicians inserted last-minute amendments intended to provide a strict definition of so-called net neutrality, which means that telecom companies and other Internet service providers cannot discriminate between different services that run on their data networks. The lawmakers also made it mandatory for mobile phone companies to comply with rules to phase out roaming costs when consumers use cellphones in other EU countries by the end of next year.

"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner responsible for telecommunications, said in a statement on Thursday. "This is what the EU is all about - getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive."

Industry lobbyists said that the cuts in cellphone roaming charges, which received widespread political backing, would likely stand when a new Parliament convenes. The net neutrality provisions, which passed with slim majorities, could be reopened depending on the outcome of the parliamentary elections.

In a sign that the debate over the legislation is far from over, Giles Chichester, a member of the European Parliament from Britain, criticized colleagues over the vote, saying they had rushed into the approval.

The current legislation, said Mr. Chichester, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party, poses "significant risks to innovation, investment and ultimately consumers from top-down and overly prescriptive rules that attempt to predict the largely uncertain future evolution of the Internet "

The rules are part of a continuing debate in Europe over how to pay for the multibillion-euro investments needed to upgrade the Continent's mobile and landline Internet infrastructure. In the absence of clear rules, Europe has slipped increasingly behind the more advanced data networks of North America and Asia.

Operators like Vodafone of Britain and Deutsche Telekom of Germany want to charge Internet companies like Google, Netflix and smaller start-ups for use of their networks because services like online-television streaming occupy a large percentage of the Internet pipelines.

In contrast, Internet companies and consumer advocacy groups warn that the telecom companies could reduce consumer choice if they require companies to pay extra for access to data networks. Companies say only those with deep pockets, which are mostly American Internet giants like Microsoft, which owns the video messaging service Skype, would be able to pay for greater access to Europe's Internet infrastructure.

European lawmakers said that the majority of politicians had approved the new legislation because of evidence that telecom companies had already promoted some services at the expense of others, including Skype.

In response, the vote on Thursday provided extra protection for equal access to Europe's mobile and fixed-line data networks. Internet service providers like cable companies would still be able to sell access to higher-quality networks, as long as that access did not affect the existing infrastructure.

Consumer advocacy groups welcomed the changes.

"The E.U. seized the opportunity to secure users' rights and protect innovation and freedom of expression online," Raegan MacDonald, the European policy manager at the consumer group Access, said in a statement.

Telecom carriers, which have plans to put billions of euros into the Continent's mobile and landline Internet infrastructure over the next 10 years, are concerned that they will not be able to recoup their investment from consumers' growing appetite for online services like streaming of music and TV.

For many telecom companies, roaming also is a significant source of revenue in an increasingly competitive market where more than four major carriers in each European country typically vie for consumers' attention.

"Today's vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent regulation," Luigi Gambardella, chairman of the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, said in a statement. "The access of European citizens and businesses to innovative and high-quality services will be negatively affected."

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First Published: Sat, April 05 2014. 00:08 IST