The European Commission is threatening to brandish the new roaming regulation or antitrust rules in order to block plans by major EU telecoms operators to restrict the use of Internet calling services like Skype via their mobile networks.
Replying to a written question by a Socialist MEP, Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding made clear last week that the new roaming regulation, which entered into force at the beginning of July, is also aimed at avoiding any discrimination between technologies.
The regulation “stresses that there should be no obstacles to the emergence of applications or technologies which can be a substitute for, or alternative to, roaming services, such as WiFi, VoIP and Instant Messaging services,” she said.
“The Commission is, therefore, taking a close interest” in all initiatives announced by telecoms operators regarding the possibility of blocking the use of Skype’s Internet telephony services, Reding added. Earlier in 2009, Competitition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said an inquiry was “ongoing” into alleged violations of EU antitrust rules by mobile telecoms companies.
Socialist MEP Christel Schaldemose had asked for Reding’s opinion on an announcement made by German mobile telecoms operator T-Mobile that it would impose an extra-charge on consumers using Skype and other VoIP services on its network.
After strong pressure from the press, public authorities and consumer groups, T-Mobile has changed tack, and is now thinking of charging consumers a flat rate for using VoIP together with normal mobile telephony services. The fee will be higher than that requested for using only standard telecoms applications, such as voice calls and text messaging.
Vodafone, the biggest mobile telecoms operator in the world, said it could make a similar move. “You can buy a tariff that allows you to use VoIP, or buy one that prevents the use of VoIP. Customers can make choices. The principle is that we will configure our tariffs to give customers the choice to do what they want. Each customer pays their own economic costs, with no cross-subsidy,” Vodafone’s director of public policy, Richard Feasey, said in a conference in Brussels in June.
Reding had already stated that net neutrality is one of her priorities. This means that controls on networks should be confined only to actions of traffic prioritisation to improve users’ experience and bring value and growth to operators. Internet service providers already operate network management systems which prioritise traffic to companies during working hours and to households at night, in line with market demand. At the same time, they also offer business clients quicker connections for higher fees.
“Exporting this concept to mobile Internet services makes sense, but unfortunately at the moment, the debate is not about network management, but is indeed focused on new illegitimate charges on consumers for the use of free services, which do not bring extra costs to operators,” an EU telecoms expert told EURACTIV, speaking on condition of anonymity.