Kroes stirs up net neutrality debate – part II

Neelie Kroes, EU digital commissioner, may well be an operator nemesis when it comes to slashing EU roaming rates. On the subject of net neutrality, however, she appears to be taking a pragmatic approach that maybe – just maybe – has appeal to both operators and consumers alike.

After saying at the end of May she was keen on “guaranteeing” net neutrality – which no doubt sent shivers up the spines of many in the mobile industry – Kroes added more detail in a later speech (4 June) on where she thinks legislation could usefully apply to preserving the ‘open internet’.

And yes, some of her views may well irk OTT-sensitive operators.

For one thing, she wants to ban the apparently popular practice – particularly in EU markets with relatively low levels of competition – of mobile operators throttling back or ‘degrading’ services that rival their own, such as Skype and WhatsApp.

And when customers do sign up to an ISP package, Kroes said it should be perfectly clear what they are signing up to – particularly on data speeds. “Too often these are hidden away in long and complex contracts,” said Europe’s digital chief. “That’s not good enough.”

Both proposals, dare I say it, seem reasonable. Genuinely competitive markets, arguably, should force operators to do these things anyway. What’s more, it really is pretty hard to put forward a convincing case that says innovation is not stifled by elbowing out competition.

True, there is the thorny issue of whether or not so-called OTT players should contribute to operators’ network costs, but perhaps that could be resolved through discussion. If that sounds too optimistic (from an operators’ point of view) I have heard one OTT player say it would be happy to pay network operators money if it could be guaranteed certain quality of service levels.

Where Kroes might stand on such an arrangement is hard to predict, but perhaps she would be flexible. After all, as she indicated in her latest speech, she’s not following the US where FCC net neutrality rules discourage operators from offering faster service to customers that are willing to pay extra. The example often made by those challenging the FCC’s stance against a ‘two-speed internet’ is that it’s common practice in other industries – such as air travel and postal services – that users pay extra to get a better service.

Kroes gives her own example. “If you’ve just bought a videoconferencing system, you’ll probably also want an internet service that guarantees the right quality, end-to-end,” she said. “If someone wants to pay extra for that, no EU rules should stand in their way; it’s not my job to ban people from buying those services, nor to prevent people providing them. If you don’t want to buy them that is also fine, and you should absolutely continue to benefit from the “best efforts internet”.

Again, I find it hard to disagree.

Where Kroes might turn her net-neutrality attention to next is how to tackle a growing trend among operators of charging content providers and app developers to keep their data use from counting against mobile data caps of their customers. In this way, of course, operators can influence what types of internet-based content their customers access, and all to their own financial advantage.

It’s a net neutrality conundrum that regulators will no doubt want to tackle on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m intrigued as to what answers, if any, they might come up with.

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