EU Telecommunications Ministers Stick to Hard Line on Roaming Fees, Net Neutrality

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By Bengt Ljung

June 12 — European Union telecommunications ministers stuck to a hard-line negotiating position regarding net neutrality and ending roaming fees.

An agreement with the European Parliament is possible before the end of the month, they said on June 12, but it is now up to the Parliament to soften its position.

“The Council of Ministers is not ready to support an agreement at any cost. If the European Parliament wants to make certain concessions, then I'm sure we'll reach an agreement during the Latvian presidency,” Latvian Transport Minister Anrijs Matiss told a news conference after the telecommunications council meeting in Luxembourg.

Latvia is the current holder of the rotating, six-month EU presidency, which ends on June 30, and the Latvian minister led the meeting.

The European Parliament and the EU governments in the Council of Ministers are co-legislators in the proposals for a Telecom Single Market. So far representatives of the European Parliament and the Latvian presidency have failed to find a compromise in three negotiating rounds, held together with the European Commission and called trialogues.

A fourth trialogue scheduled for June 15 has been cancelled, because the Parliament hasn't yet agreed on a revised negotiating position.

“As soon as the Parliament is ready, we'll meet,” Anrijs Matiss said.

The Parliament wants to introduce earlier than the EU governments a ban on mobile roaming charges when customers are travelling to other EU countries. The Parliament also wants stricter rules to ensure open Internet access.

On June 12, the telecom ministers seemed more willing to compromise on the date for the introduction of the roaming fee ban.

Gunther Oettinger, EU commissioner for the digital economy, told the same news conference that the discussion among telecom ministers had shown that there is a window of opportunity to introducing the roaming fee ban from 2016 to 2018.

“We can be flexible with the date,” Anrijs Matiss said. “But it should be set realistically because it is connected to the revision of wholesale tariffs, that should take place before that time.”

When asked, he said he did not have a head count for how many ministers preferred 2018 as a starting date.

The chairman of the meeting also underlined that the EU couldn't force some telecom companies to operate below the costs of roaming.

“That would increase domestic prices in one country and create network failure in another, therefore affecting both consumers and operators,” Anrijs Matiss said.

On net neutrality, both sides agree to the principle that operators shouldn't be allowed to block or throttle Internet content, which could be a method to discriminate against content providers with competing services.

The disagreement is to what extent operators should be able to offer higher quality at a higher price.

Oettinger said the EU telecom ministers now were close to reaching a common definition of what net neutrality is, and what exceptions to equal treatment should be allowed.

“We want a water-tight definition that can be enforced against all market operators and can be monitored efficiently,” he said.

The Latvian transport minister emphasized that the EU governments were looking for a package deal with the Parliament.

The European Commission presented an extensive plan for a Telecom Single Market in September 2013.

But during the legislative process, EU governments and to a lesser extent also the European Parliament, have stripped out many parts, such as coordination of radio spectrum auctions and decreased powers for national telecom supervisors.

Net neutrality and ending roaming fees are the two remaining main features.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com