Mobile telecom companies regularly block voice over IP (VoIP) and prevent services such as Skype from functioning on their networks, the group that represents EU telecom regulators (BEREC) says in the preliminary findings of a much-awaited report on internet neutrality.

“BEREC preliminary findings on traffic management practices in Europe show that blocking of VoIP traffic is common,” the group said in a statement.

The findings are the result of a survey carried out by BEREC over several months and represents information gathered from 250 fixed-line and 150 mobile operators across Europe.

EU regulators found that VoIP services such as Skype are mainly blocked by mobile operators. Peer-to-peer traffic, which allows exchange of files between Internet users, is also regularly slowed down or blocked by both fixed-line and mobile operators.

One-quarter of the respondents said that their online traffic management practices are carried out on security grounds, but BEREC underlines that these measures “are best described as congestion management techniques.”

They can be applied with an “application-agnostic approach”, meaning that they would not favour any specific application. However, the “application-specific” approach is more common, and ultimately ends up discriminating against certain services.

Hampering competition?

The main concerns - which BEREC did not spell out but which are underlined by some sector analysts - are that telecom companies may hamper competition on online platforms, blocking services which could rival their offers.

With its online free-call offers and cheap telephone services, Skype provides a popular alternative to telecoms operators. By diverting traffic from VoIP services to other activities, telecoms may therefore possibly harm rivals. 

Operators argue that filtering, blocking and slowing down (known in jargon as throttling) is necessary to allow a functioning traffic management which ultimately benefits all internet users and prevents congestion of the net.

As more services migrate to the Web, operators seem to be increasingly tempted to discriminate against other services which compete with their own or do not yield much profit, effectively creating fast lanes and slow lanes for different services. Net neutrality would therefore be seriously challenged (see background).

The European commissioner in charge of telecoms, Neelie Kroes, so far has not taken a clear position on the thorny subject. However, in a written response via email, she underlined that the Commission “welcomes the development of new business models that create more dynamism in the market” and that “consumers must be able to switch operators easily and quickly.”

A definitive answer from the Commission is expected by summer, once BEREC makes public the results of a comprehensive report and a set of guidelines on net neutrality.

Telecom companies contacted by EurActiv declined to comment.