EC Cautious on Net Neutrality Regulation, Plans Probe Into 'Throttling' Complaints

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BRUSSELS--The European Commission continued to take a cautious approach to net neutrality legislation and insisted April 19 there was no current need for European Union legislation on the topic.

However, the European Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes did agree April 19 to launch an investigation into reports some telecom network operators were throttling high-speed internet traffic in order to disrupt companies such as Skype, Google’s You Tube, and others. Based on that investigation, Kroes said she will decide by the end of 2011 if further regulation is needed.

“I am informed that some Internet providers practice so-called “throttling” where they slow down certain types of traffic such as video streaming by a competitor, in order to degrade the quality of content,” said Kroes, who made a name for herself by forcing Microsoft to alter its business model. “Some mobile Internet operators block VoIP services. I need to verify these claims. Together with national telecoms regulators, the European Commission will spend 2011 closely looking at current market practices.

“If I am not satisfied that consumers can counteract such practices by switching providers, I will not hesitate to introduce more stringent measures,” Kroes added. “That could be in the form of more prescriptive guidance or even legislation if it is needed.”

As part of the investigation the EC said it will determine along with European national telecom regulators whether internet service providers are offering internet connections at the broadband speed that they advertise.

The debate over the issue of net neutrality is a carryover from deliberations over a new EU telecom package of laws that was approved in 2009 and is due to take effect at the end of May. While EU legislators agreed not to include specific language on the issue of net neutrality in the telecoms package, consumer groups and companies like Skype and Google have been pressing the Commission to pursue it.

According to an EC report released April 19 as part of Kroes’ statements on the issue, telecom operators in at least six countries are using measures to “throttle” data traffic. Some examples highlighted by Kroes include complaints that in the United Kingdom telecom operators make Skype unmanageable at peak usage hours such as in the afternoon or in the evening. She also said complaints have been received that a telecom operator operating in several EU member states “severely degrades” internet phone services so they are difficult to use.

The announcement by Kroes that only further investigation was necessary drew prompt criticism from the European Consumers Organization, which is known by its French acronym of BEUC.

“We regret that the European Commission has for now passed up the opportunity to adopt specific rules on net neutrality for the benefit of internet users,” said BEUC Director General Monique Goyens. “The fact-finding exercise just announced will confirm the obvious: net neutrality is endangered and significant time has already been lost. BEUC is among many stakeholders calling for regulation at EU level.”

'Smart Management.'

Meanwhile, the European Telecommunication Network Operators Association, which represents the large telecom operators in the EU, said EU telecoms already guarantee open, transparent networks. But it also added that “smart management” of networks is essential for offering service quality to all end end-users and for developing innovative services.

“Traffic management does not restrict consumers’ fundamental rights such as freedom of speech or privacy,” Luigi Gambardella, an ETNO official said. “On the contrary by providing a secure, safe and reliable network--even in the case of traffic peaks--networks management enhances consumers’ experience when accessing the internet.

“In highly competitive markets for fixed and mobile broadband, any further regulation that would restrict traffic management and service differentiation would undermine Europe’s digital economy and hamper innovation,” Gambardella said.

The report from the Commission comes only a week after a cross-party French parliament inquiry was highly critical of actions taken by both mobile and wireline telecom operators deemed anticompetitive.

By Joe Kirwin

A copy of the Commission report can be found at the following website:

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