Tensions over net neutrality shake up Mobile World Congress

EU tech policy chief Andrus Ansip and the top US telecoms regulator Ajit Pai laid out their disagreements over net neutrality at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday (26 February). [GSMA]

This article is part of our special report Mobile World Congress: Europe rushes to keep pace on connectivity.

Sparks flew at a public discussion over net neutrality at one of the world’s biggest tech conferences on Monday (27 February), as EU tech chief Andrus Ansip defended the bloc’s two-year-old legislation while sharing a stage with the American regulator who just repealed a similar US law.

Ansip and Ajit Pai, the chairman of US Federal Communications Commission, explained their different positions on regulating internet traffic during an hour-long discussion that prompted occasional jeers from the audience.

Net neutrality laws regulate how internet service providers treat websites and services using their networks, and they prevent operators from charging higher rates for faster access.

Legal bans on how carriers treat internet traffic have been a source of fierce disagreement between telecoms firms and civil liberties groups. Some tech companies like Netflix have also lobbied in favour of net neutrality rules.

The debate over net neutrality came on the first day of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which is expected to draw around 100,000 visitors. The annual event started on Monday and has otherwise been dominated by gadget launches and tech executives’ speeches.

The flare-up was prompted by a FCC decision in December to repeal the US’ 2015 net neutrality law.

Ansip used a keynote speech to double down on his commitment to the EU’s rules.

“I do not want a digital motorway for the lucky few, while others use a digital dirt-track,” the European Commission vice-president said.

In an interview that was published on Monday, Ansip told EURACTIV.com, “We don’t have any fears that the open internet rules were an obstacle to investment”. Net neutrality legislation is also referred to as open internet rules.

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Speaking after Ansip, Pai suggested that net neutrality does hamper companies’ ability to invest.

His agency’s decision to repeal net neutrality will free up telecoms operators to pay for expensive new network infrastructure that they will need when they start offering faster mobile services in the next few years, Pai argued.

“We believe that our decision will give the private sector greater incentive to invest in 5G networks for the future,” he said.

After their short speeches, Ansip and Pai joined a panel discussion with Marcelo Claure, the CEO of US telecoms giant Sprint, and Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of industry group GSMA, which organises the Mobile World Congress.

In a show of how net neutrality can stir emotional reactions, their public talk was interrupted twice by shouts from the audience to “talk about facts” and “go to a different topic”. Dozens of people left the large auditorium during the discussion on net neutrality.

When asked on stage about high-profile advertisements in favour of the US net neutrality rules, including one earlier this year from Burger King, Pai said, “I would hope public opinion over time is based more on facts and less on public relations campaigns”.

Ansip was heckled by an audience member when he said that net neutrality rules were needed because European telecoms providers had blocked access to online services before the legislation was passed.

“In Europe blocking and throttling was somehow a reality,” he said.

“It was the reality that in too many cases people couldn’t use Skype,” Ansip added.

The EU leader said he thinks the European Commission and US regulators both want to prevent companies from overcharging and blocking certain internet traffic, but they chose different ways to regulate.

But Ansip admitted that he has concerns about how the US repeal of net neutrality rules could affect European businesses if American operators block access to their websites and online services.

“We are especially worried about this European content in the United States, how this content will be treated. And of course we will not accept blocking, throttling, discrimination,” he said.

Net neutrality also came up in a meeting that Ansip held with EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel and CEOs from 11 large European telecoms companies on Monday.

A briefing document for the meeting took a cautious view of the US’ repeal of net neutrality because it reflects “an increasing fragmentation of rules and regulations”.

The document, which EURACTIV has seen, said that the FCC’s decision “adds to concerns regarding the fitness of the restrictive EU approach to net neutrality for innovative services and 5G business models”.

CEOs from Deutsche Telekom, BT, Hutchison Whampoa, KPN, Orange, Proximus, Telefónica, Telenor, Telia, TIM and Vodafone attended the meeting.

The briefing document referred to a review of the rules that the Commission has planned for next year as “an opportunity for a thorough evaluation”.

The CEOs’ concerns show that European telecoms firms are asking the Commission to make some changes to the bloc’s legislation.

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BEREC, the umbrella group of telecoms regulators from EU countries, is currently collecting information on how the net neutrality rules work in every member state, and will send its analysis to the Commission before the review next year.

In an interview with EURACTIV last month, BEREC chairman Johannes Gungl predicted that the Commission will keep the EU legislation but may adjust some of its measures.

“For instance when it comes to 5G maybe there is a little bit to fine tune on the rules,” Gungl said in the interview.

One industry source said the telecoms companies’ goal is not to “reopen” the EU legislation, but to communicate their concerns about net neutrality to BEREC while it analyses the law’s effects across Europe.

The CEOs might strike a nerve in the Commission by suggesting that net neutrality rules could get in the way of their plans to launch 5G mobile networks. The EU executive is urging companies to speed up an estimated €56.6 billion in investments needed to support the new technology.

European operators invest significantly less money in developing 5G compared to other world regions.

The CEOs also discussed their plans to introduce 5G in Europe during the meeting with Ansip and Gabriel. While some trials of the new technology are already running in the EU, European operators are expected to make 5G services available for commercial use later than companies in the US and Asia.

EU national governments agreed last year that consumers everywhere in the bloc should be able to use 5G by 2025.

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