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European Commission plans net neutrality push

Steely Neelie's 'connected continent' plan to kill off roaming charges from 2014

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The European Commission (EC) has proposed to enshrine net neutrality in its statute books, with President José Manuel Durão Barroso signalling his intention to adopt the “connected continent” agenda proposed by commissioner for the Digital Agenda and veep Neelie Kroes.

Barrosso yesterday delivered the European Union's State of the Union Address, in which he said the EC will “formally adopt a proposal that gives a push towards a single market for telecoms.”

“We know that in the future, trade will be more and more digital,” Barrosso said. “Isn't it a paradox that we have an internal market for goods but when it comes to digital market we have 28 national markets?”

The Commission's answer to that paradox is a single telecoms market, which Kroes thinks is justified because it will give the Union's economy a boost. That dividend “... won't come about by rent-seeking in protected national markets,” she writes. “It won't come about from a sector that seeks to block new ideas or maintain scarcity, frustrating the economy's need for connectivity and innovation. Nor by looking backwards to yesterday's cash cows – like unfair surcharges from intra-European calls and sky-high roaming margins.”

The agenda therefore recommends a ban on charges to receive calls across the EU, plus “New rules that make it easier for operators to work across borders. For example: so they can work in multiple countries – without negotiating separate bureaucracy and seeking separate formal authorisations in each one”. Kroes doesn't want a single European telecoms regulator but does “... want to ensure national regulators can coordinate more strategically – by giving the Body of European Regulators a full-time, professional chair - with a stable, 3-year term.”

The headline aim of these efforts is an end to roaming charges by 2014.

On net neutrality, Kroes says it's time it to be enshrined across the continent because “Today, millions of Europeans find services like Skype blocked, or their internet access degraded: my proposal will end those discriminatory practices.” “Extra new 'specialised services' (like for IPTV, e-Health, or cloud computing) would be allowed only if they don't cause general impairment of regular Internet access,” she adds.

Barrosso and Kroes both think such initiatives will help Europe to regain a position of leadership in the technology world. Kroes invokes Nokia's sale of its mobile phone business to Microsoft as an indicator of how the continent has lost such a position. Just how cheaper calls and an open internet trickle down into a more innovative business sector (startups are anticipated as the engine of growth) isn't explained.

At least Barrosso nodded in the direction of the NSA by saying the hoped-for benefits are more likely to come about “by properly combining the digital agenda with data protection and the defence of privacy”. He therefore recommends the EC adopt stronger data protection laws to ensure the public can trust it as it touches on more matters digital. ®

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