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Some animals are more equal than others – on net neutrality and roaming charges in the European Union

“Don’t ever let a good crisis go to waste.” While all of Europe is starring at Greece, the European Union has finally come up with new rules for roaming and net neutrality.

And how do these rules look? Not as good as one would hope for, or at least they open exceptions that make them entirely useless.

Net neutrality

Update 2017-06-02 Eric Carrell from Cloudwards sent me an email:

My colleague Lavanya put together a pretty comprehensive piece on the net neutrality just last week.There is a lot of info out there about net neutrality, and it’s sort of a hot topic at the moment. Our guide was designed to cut through the noise a bit. The article is here: https://www.cloudwards.net/net-neutrality/

The rules claim to provide for net neutrality, which means that internet service providers need to offer their lines evenly for all content and cannot take “bribes” from certain content providers to allow for faster access. This is important to make sure that also sites not hosted by the big content providers such as Google, Facebook and Netflix are allowed to spread their contents using the same-speed lines. Legislation has already been parsed in Chile, Brazil the US and some other countries.

However, the EU version of net neutrality may end up being the opposite of what it claims to be, as the press statement says: “Agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed.” If this is not specified any further to only be applicable up to certain levels, this in effect means the opposite of net neutrality: It lets internet service providers make deals with specific sites to give fast access to their content, while letting everything else go slow. It does state that “operators will have to ensure the general quality of internet access services” but it doesn’t say what that means exactly. Is 1990s type dial-up internet speed not also of some quality?

European roaming

The second part of the legislation concerns mobile phone roaming. There is now a new date by when roaming charges should be no more: 15 June 2017, with an intermediate step on 30 April 2016 when a minute of roaming call is to cost €0.05 (currently €0.19), an SMS €0.02 (currently €0.06) and a MB of data €0.05 (currently €0.20).

Exorbitant costs and moving deadlines

The first problem with this is the dates. 2015 was the year when roaming charges were to end for quite a while now, so the main argument for why roaming charges still have to apply because mobile phone operators have to transition is nonsensical and not much more than an excuse to extort even more money from customers.

Also, the relation between roaming costs for calling and data shows that these supposed costs are quite absurd. The handling of phone calls of a foreign mobile company may there may be somewhat complicated as the ancient technology used in GSM mobile phones may need to do some extra procedures to find where the phone is on the net, first in the home network, then if not found there on the international network, etc. .

However, anyone even slightly familiar with internet technology knows that handling the mobile phone of a foreign phone participant should be much less complex: It’s basically the same process as when you take your laptop to a friends house and connect to their wifi, except that it also contains a system for monitoring everyone’s bandwidth usage. But that’s all there needs to be: It checks where your phone is from, gives you access, and sends the bill to your home operator. It does not need to forward any traffic from your home network nor give you an IP number from some other network. It should be dead simple.

And what do networks charge their clients for mobile data? Prepaid is generally somewhat more expensive and should correspond more to what a foreign client would represent to a network.

Some examples of current prepaid prices for data:

Comviq (Sweden): 1GB/50 SEK = €0.0054/MB

Alditalk (Germany): 1.5GB/€9.99 =  €0.00666/MB

Orange (Span): 1GB/€8.95 = €0.00999/MB

So currently mobile operators offer data access for less than €0.01 to their domestic customers, while international customers need to pay 20 times as much, and starting in a year they have the privilege of only paying 5 times as much. There is no valid technical explanation for this difference, except that mobile operators are used to rip of foreign customers and would like to continue doing so, and somehow they convinced some parliamentarians that this is a good idea.

Loopholes

But the even worse part is that the end of roaming charges may not come after all, as the statement says that “roaming providers will be able to apply a ‘fair use policy’ to prevent abusive use of roaming. This would include using roaming services for purposes other than periodic travel. ”

First of all that means that the network providers don’t need to compete internationally. There have been a series of bogus articles in some countries written mainly in favor of the mobile phone operators that make it sound as if this were a good thing, yet it is of course clear the consumer gains nothing from preventing competition in a system in which each mobile company tries to obtain the maximum possible profit.

Secondly, we have previously seen how some in the EU-system put “fair use” at something like 5 MB/day.  Unless there is a clear definition of what they are allowed to set the “fair use” at, there is little to prevent them from doing this again.

Conclusion

It is good that something is moving on these issues in the EU system,and the Latvian Minister for Transport, Anrijs Matīss, may think that “This is a great success for the European Union and the Latvian presidency”.

However, unless it is written out what exactly this means and the exceptions and loopholes are confined to some specific corner cases, what has been decided upon so far is either nothing at all, or possible even the opposite of that it was started out to be.

Given that some mobile operators, such as 3 in Denmark, is able to offer roaming in most of Europe up to 10 GB at no extra cost already, it is very difficult to see why any time should be wasted before forcing all operators to offer similar conditions.

 

 

 

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