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.
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.
BEREC said in a statement: “ The most frequently reported traffic management practices are the blocking and/or throttling of peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic, on both fixed and mobile networks, and the blocking of Voice over IP (VoIP) traffic (mostly on mobile networks, usually based on specific contract terms).”
Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a written statement: “We have asked BEREC to undertake a rigorous fact-finding exercise. We need to know what the situation is - if customers really know what service they’re signing up to; the extent of practices like throttling and blocking and their effect on consumer choice; and the impact on service quality delivered to the end-user.”
“On the basis of BEREC’s final report and of our own analysis, we will be able to make an informed choice whether additional guidance or more stringent measures regarding open internet and net neutrality are necessary,” she said without commenting on the preliminary findings of the survey published by BEREC.
A Skype spokesperson said in written reply to EurActiv: “BEREC confirms the reality of what we have highlighted for several years: there is a systemic and arbitrary discrimination against Internet innovation and user choice in Europe.”
“We look forward to the final findings from BEREC, and more importantly a follow-up action by the authorities to ensure that internet users anywhere in Europe can access the content and services, and run the applications of their choice,” the spokesperson said.
At the heart of the controversy concerning net neutrality is whether access to Internet services or content should be controlled and filtered or left untouched according to the principle of ‘best effort’.
This principle implies that no provider can prioritise traffic on the net for economic reasons. Instead, every user should be served with the providers’ best effort. This criterion has seen derogations in order to allow more professional use of the Internet. Therefore, a business user willing to pay more gets a faster and better connection.
However, extending this concept to many more users would run the risk of the majority getting such a poor service that it will prevent them from using the Internet. The borders between the two needs are currently being defined, and are subject to technological and regulatory developments.
The issue of net neutrality was first debated in the US a while ago, and is now generating intense debate in Brussels. Last April the Commission presented a paper that left many questions unanswered on the way forward.
The term 'net neutrality' was coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who has written widely on the rise of Internet monopolies such as Google and Facebook.
- Summer 2012: BEREC to publish report and guidelines on net neutrality
- BEREC:Press release on traffic management (9 March 2012)
- European Commission:Communication on net neutrality (19 April 2011)
- European Data Protection Superviser (EDPS):Press release on net neutrality and privacy concerns [FR]