EC Says Net Neutrality Guidelines Vital to Digital Single Market

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By Joe Kirwin

Aug.30 —Two weeks before it is to due unveil a sweeping new telecom regulatory framework legislation, the European Commission extolled new net neutrality guidelines, published August 30, as vital to harmonizing national policies supporting an open internet and the commission’s overarching goal of establishing an EU digital single market.

The commission had expressed concerns about some of the draft provisions by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) earlier this year.

“Our rules and today's guidelines avoid fragmentation in the single market, create legal certainty for businesses and make it easier for them to work across borders,” the commission said in a Aug. 30 statement. “They also ensure that the internet remains an engine of innovation and that advanced technologies and internet-of-things services like connected vehicles as well as 5G applications are developed today.”

Advocacy groups, which had warned that net neutrality could be undermined if BEREC acceded to telecom industry demands, hailed the guidelines as an open internet victory that establish a global standard.

Litigation and Lead Boots

European telecommunications providers, however, promised court challenges, saying that the new rules put forward by BEREC ruptured a delicate legislative compromise reached in 2014. Telcos and cable operators are particularly concerned about new regulations specialized services, zero rating and traffic management. Specialized services are communications services optimized for specific content, applications or services and delivered over dedicated facilities rather than via the open internet. Zero rating is the practice of exempting specific content, applications, or services from counting against a subscriber's data usage limit.

The European Telecoms Network Operators Association, which represents companies such as Deutsche Telekom A.G., Vodofone Ltd., and Orange S.A., insisted that the guidelines go far beyond the intention of the EU Open Internet regulation.

“It is clear that our concerns have not been take on board so our business and legal departments are considering options,” ETNO Spokesman Alessandro Gropelli told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 30. “The next step is that we will wait to see how national telecom regulators employ these guidelines. But litigation is being planned by some operators.”

Gropelli said the chief concerns for telecom operators concerned restrictions on specialized services, which he said would inhibit the develop of new services such as automated cards and telemedicine.

Cable television operators warned the guidelines amounted to “lead boots”' that will stifle innovation and warned national telecom regulators against implementing them.

Cable Europe, which represents cable operators from more than 15 EU member states, said that the BEREC guidelines are overly “prescriptive” and that the EU goal of establishing an EU single market is at risk.

“We believe that the ambitions of the digital single market strategy are shared by industry and legislators alike,” Cable Europe Chairman Matthias Kurth said in a statement. “We recognize that the potential for digital transformation must not be fettered by overly prescriptive rules that will stifle innovation and put lead boots on the boundless potential or our digital technology.”

Crying Wolf

Chris Marsden, a United Kingdom-based professor of internet and media law at the University of Sussex, said the telecom operators were “crying wolf.” He said that broadcasting industry will be “relieved that they can not be corralled into specialized services or zero rating.”

“The application and service industries will be relieved that cloud services will still be accessible at reasonable levels of quality without having to cut a special deal with each access provider, which would be the nightmare scenario for European industry,” Marsden told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mailed statement.

Digital rights triumph

The criticism from European telecom and cable television companies contrasts with praise from groups such as SaveTheInternet.eu, which demonstrated its enthusiasm by raising banners in front of the European Commission headquarters.

“Based on a preliminary reading of the text, this is a triumph for the European digital rights movement,” said Thomas Lohninger, an official with SaveTheInternet.eu. “After a long battle and with the support of half a million people the principles that make the internet an open platform for change, freedom and prosperity are upheld in the EU.”

The BEREC net neutrality guidelines were finalized after the commission received more than 400,000 responses to a public consultation held over two months in the run-up to the Aug. 30 publication of the document.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Kirwin in Brussels at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tim McElgunn at tmcelgunn@bna.com

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