Kroes: I will end net neutrality waiting game

Europeans are a step closer to seeing new net neutrality rules put in place, after the release of an EU regulators' report on how often ISPs and operators throttle their services.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

Europeans are a step closer to seeing new net neutrality rules put in place, after the release of an EU regulators' report on how often ISPs and operators throttle their services.

On Tuesday, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said the release of the report from by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) means she will make recommendations to the EU on preserving net neutrality, which aims to make sure ISPs do not unfairly restrict customers from accessing the service or application or their choice.

"BEREC has today provided the data I was waiting for. For most Europeans, their internet access works well most of the time. But these findings show the need for more regulatory certainty and that there are enough problems to warrant strong and targeted action to safeguard consumers," Kroes said in a statement.

"Given that BEREC's findings highlight a problem of effective consumer choice, I will prepare recommendations to generate more real choices and end the net neutrality waiting game in Europe," she added.

A spokesman for Kroes told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the recommendations will be put in front of the European Commission before the end of 2012, or very early in 2013.

Kroes has pushed for EU member states to hold off from introducing their own individual net neutrality laws, saying that legislating on an ad-hoc country-by-country basis would "slow down the creation of a Single Digital Market". She has asked them to wait until Breec published its report, which was commissioned more than a year ago.

In its report, BEREC reported that between 20 percent and 50 percent of people in the EU are tied into broadband or mobile broadband contracts that allow the operators to limit access to services like VoIP or file-sharing. In the UK, most of the major broadband providers, such as Virgin Media and BT, use throttling on some of their packages in order to manage traffic volumes.

Additionally, it found that 20 percent of fixed-service broadband operators do in fact apply restrictions to their services, such as for peer-to-peer use, at peak times.

However, Kroes noted that most mobile and fixed providers also offer plans that allow unrestricted access. While this implies customers have the choice of avoiding traffic management, this depends on whether providers explain the options clearly, she said.

"Are customers really empowered to choose well? Do they realise what they are signing up for? I didn't read all the pages in my mobile contract and I bet you didn't either! I believe we all need more transparent information," Kroes said.

Kroes is pushing for more detailed explanations of the "real-life" services that customers sign up for before they are locked into an agreement. For example, ISPs should provide detailed estimates of average speed at peak times, as well as out of hours, and should make it clear exactly which services people can use and at what times they are limited, where applicable.

"Consumers also need to know if they are getting Champagne or lesser sparkling wine. If it is not full internet, it shouldn't be marketed as such; perhaps it shouldn't be marketed as "internet" at all, at least not without any upfront qualification. Regulators should have that kind of control over how ISPs market the service," the commissioner said.

However, Kroes stopped short of saying she would force each operator to provide "full internet", so that there would be a difference between product packages and to encourage entrepreneurship in the sector.

"If consumers want to obtain discounts because they only plan to use limited online services, why stand in their way? And we don't want to create obstacles to entrepreneurs who want to provide tailored connected services or service bundles, whether it's for social networking, music, smart grids, e-health or whatever. But I want to be sure that these consumers are aware of what they are getting, and what they are missing," Kroes said.

She also said more guidance was needed over how consumers are informed about privacy, given operators are called on to use packet inspection to control access to services.

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