Getting a telecoms deal: Harder than agreeing on Greece?

Talks on the telecoms single market ended with an agreement that could be approved this fall

Talks on the telecoms single market ended with an agreement that could be approved this fall. [Dropbox/Flickr]

After almost 13 hours cooped up in talks, negotiators tasked with clinching some kind of a deal on the telecoms single market came to a breakthrough early this morning (30 June). At around two o’clock, frazzled MEPs tweeted that the marathon meeting had broken up with an agreement in hand.

Michel Reimon, shadow MEP for the Greens on the deal, told EURACTIV this morning that the Social Democrats and Greens in Parliament wanted to disperse earlier and reconvene on another day. But the Council presidency wanted to power through to reach agreement.

“I was very much reminded of the Greek negotiations last weekend. They came up with papers, we had a break for hours, they came back and had new papers—unofficial papers, new versions,” Reimon said.

With the Latvian presidency of the Council petering out ahead of tomorrow’s handover to Luxembourg, the deal comes as a last-ditch effort to sound off the six-month term with a conclusion to the long fought over legislation on roaming charges and net neutrality provisions.

The agreement reached by MEPs, the Council of the EU and the Commission still needs to go through a revision process, which could take weeks. A first Council meeting took place this morning to present the deal to ambassadors.

>>Read: Europe split on abolition of mobile roaming charges

A final signing off on the agreement won’t happen until this fall.

Positive for consumers and industry

Spanish MEP Pilar del Castillo (EPP), the rapporteur on the legislation package, called the outcome on net neutrality and roaming a positive move and said it safeguards digital rights.

“This agreement means very tangible benefits for all Europeans and economic sectors and constitutes an important step forward in the development of the Digital Single Market,” del Castillo said.

Under the new agreement, roaming charges within Europe will be dropped starting on 15 June 2017. A transition phase will start next April, when charges will see a first downwards pivot. Call fees will then be capped at €0.05 per minute, an SMS at €0.02 and data use at €0.05 per megabyte.

Negotiators told EURACTIV that under this deal, telecoms could still recoup fees lost to the roaming drop-off with a cost relief provision that would let them add charges under a different name.

EU digital chiefs Andrus Ansip and Günther Oettinger signalled their approval of the roaming deal.

But Monique Goyens, director of consumer association BEUC, dampened enthusiastic reception to the roaming deal. Goyens tweeted this morning, warning that the text still has complex provisions on “fair use” and “undue burden.”

Today’s deal also brings Europe a step closer to its first legislation on net neutrality.

According to the Commission, the new agreement includes “strong net neutrality rules protecting the right of every European to access Internet content, without discrimination.”

The deal will allow faster access for specialised services provided they don’t damage users’ Internet access. Those services can include e-health technologies or Voice over IP.

>>Read: Net neutrality faces unwilling Council negotiators

Reimon, who has pushed for strict rules guaranteeing net neutrality, said the specialised services clause will benefit big companies and damage the small ones that can’t afford to offer paid add-ons.

“The United States prohibited exactly this, and they have a thriving IT economy. And now we did exactly the opposite,” Reimon said.

“We now have an open and a closed internet and the open internet stays neutral. That’s almost an Orwellian definition of net neutrality. The closed internet has specialised services.”

The agreement also opens the door to zero rating, which some telecoms companies use to offer extra sponsored content in their service packages, though regulators are supposed to make sure competing offers aren’t blocked as a result.

NGO EDRi criticised the agreement as unclear and a step down from the Parliament’s original decision in favour of net neutrality last year.

Telecoms providers have pushed back against net neutrality provisions that they say would keep companies from staying competitive. Industry association ETNO warned in a statement against legislation that would harm “innovative business models.”

ETNO also called for roaming rules “that do not distort national markets and allow for cost-recovery for all market players”.

British Prime Minister David Cameron: "This deal is fantastic news for British consumers and shows that the UK, working with its partners, can deliver real change in Europe, bringing significant benefits for working people. It also shows that the EU can show the flexibility and creativity to deliver changes that benefit people in this country and across Europe."
Matthew Evans, CEO of UK-based Broadband Stakeholder Group: “The new EU net neutrality rules cover the principles underpinned by the existing UK Codes. However, the new Regulation will introduce exceptions to traffic management which may have an impact on current policies such as spam filtering and parental control.”

Monique Goyens, director of consumer advocate group BEUC: "We cannot call it the end of roaming when there are in-built exceptions to allow providers to charge consumers when they go abroad if they fear it’s too costly. It is critical that the EU and national governments observe the deadline and finally ban roaming."

British MEP Vicky Ford (ECR): "Making sure children can use the Internet safely is vital. It was therefore crucial that parental controls such as those used in the UK can continue. Last-minute changes to the agreement will not exempt parental controls and spam blockers from the law, but after very close liaison with ministers back in the UK, we have negotiated a position that should allow the British government to pass its own law to maintain parental controls. There will be a transition period to allow this to be put in place and we will be scrutinising the detail to make sure the UK can continue to have parental controls."

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE): "Net neutrality is key as a principle. The compromise reached now is a watered down version of the strong ambitions of the European Parliament. I pushed for clearer language that unequivocally safeguards net neutrality in Europe. We need to make sure Europe can lead in safeguarding the open internet, fostering innovation, and ensuring fair competition in the digital single market."

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