European Union countries have agreed that mobile roaming charges within Europe should stay in place until the end of 2018, in opposition to European Commission plans to scrap the fees by the end of 2015.
A majority of the 28 EU member states in the European Council have voted in favour of keeping roaming charges in place until at least 2018, but the states plan to introduce measures they say will make it cheaper for Europeans to use their mobile phone when travelling within the EU.
The EC last year planned to phase out data roaming charges by the end of 2015 and implement new rules to protect net neutrality, preventing mobile and fixed line operators from throttling different internet services. Prices that consumers would pay while roaming would be dictated by local competition in the country they're travelling in. The two proposals, voted in by the European Parliament last year, were key planks of the EC's telecoms single market and digital single market strategies.
Member states, however, have proposed an alternative scheme based on a "basic roaming allowance". Once that set amount of data is consumed, operators are freed up to charge an extra fee - albeit one they say is much lower than current rates. The Council says the rate for calls, SMS, and data could not be higher than the maximum wholesale rate that operators pay for using the networks in other member states.
However, the current suggestion by the Council that the roaming allowance be 5MB per day has drawn criticism. As the Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe (ALDE) points out, that quota would amount to downloading about 15 emails with attachments, or 250 without attachments.
Over 100 EU MPs said in a letter to the Council that the plan would disappoint consumers. "We consider proposed delays by three years (2018), or a suggestion to allow for 5MB without charges per day, to lack ambition. Such outcomes will undoubtedly seriously disappoint citizens. The gap between ending roaming charges, and 5MB per day is immeasurably large," they said.
Stronger criticism came from Guy Verhofstadt, president of the ALDE in the European Parliament.
"This is a scandal. An end to roaming charges and the delivery of a genuine single market for telecoms was a campaign priority for all parties, many of whom are today responsible for blocking this measure. This includes President Juncker, who now sees many of his own EPP governments' killing his priorities in Council. He should make it clear to Mrs Merkel tomorrow that the realisation of a digital single market is a key priority for European competition and growth."
"To say this text lacks ambition is an understatement. Certainly our group will not accept this text, as the only winner from it is national telecoms operators themselves. Member States should hang their heads in shame."
ETNO, the association that represents telecoms carriers in Europe, welcomed the Council's proposal.
"We should not forget the objective of the original Commission proposal, which was to support growth and job creation. A Regulation foreclosing new business models and weakening revenues isn't in anybody's interest," said ETNO chairman Steven Tas.
The Council's position on net neutrality is that telecoms operators should be able to strike agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality, so long as they ensure the quality of internet services. It would also leave it to national regulators to oversee.
The fresh battle over net neutrality in Europe comes as the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favour of regulating against ISPs charging for fast lane traffic or throttling traffic.
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