Roaming charges and open Internet: questions and answers
Updated on 27 October 2015
Roaming charges and open internet: questions and answers
The European Commission has welcomed today's vote by the European Parliament's plenary to adopt the agreement reached on 30 June (press release) to end roaming charges by June 2017 and to set net neutrality rules for the first time in EU law (announcement by Vice-President Ansip, in charge of the Digital Single Market, and Commissioner Oettinger, in charge of the Digital Economy and Society).
What does the end of roaming charges mean?
It means that from 15 June 2017 you can use your mobile device when travelling in the EU paying the same prices as at home (domestic prices). For instance, if you pay for a monthly volume of minutes, SMS and data in your country, any voice call, SMS and data session you make while travelling abroad in the EU will be deducted from that volume as if you were at home, with no extra charges. This means the end of roaming charges as Europeans experience them today in their daily life.
The rules prevent abusive uses: for example, if the customer buys a SIM card in another EU country where domestic prices are lower to use it at home; or if the customer permanently stays abroad with a domestic subscription of his home country. This is not the usual use of roaming as the vast majority of Europeans experience it. These unusual behaviours are also called 'permanent roaming' and could have a negative impact on domestic prices, and ultimately on consumers. This is why there is a fair use safeguard. Once that limit is reached while being abroad, a small basic fee can be charged. This will be much lower than current caps (maximum prices that operators can charge consumers for roaming in the EU) and is likely to decrease even further. The Commission has been mandated to define the details of the fair use limit.
What happens until then?
As from April 2016, roaming prices will be cheaper: operators will only be able to charge a small additional amount to domestic prices up to €0.05 per minute of call made, €0.02 per SMS sent, and €0.05 per MB of data (excl. VAT).
This maximum roaming charge is about 25% of the current roaming caps for calls made and data, and 33% of the current roaming cap for SMS.
Will the end of roaming charges increase domestic prices?
Since EU regulations have been introduced to reduce roaming charges, domestic mobile prices have been decreasing as well.
A transition period has been agreed to make the abolition of roaming charges sustainable throughout the EU without an increase in domestic prices. This transition period will ensure that when the end date comes (June 2017), the wholesale costs of operators when they offer mobile communications services outside of their country will sufficiently have decreased, by market forces or through another regulatory intervention, for roaming without charges to be sustainable.
In addition, the Regulation includes safeguards that can be used by mobile operators to prevent, where necessary, abusive or anomalous use of roaming services, such as permanent roaming, which otherwise could be the source of distortions on domestic markets.
In some specific and exceptional circumstances where the provision of roaming services at domestic prices is proved to make the domestic charging model of an operator unsustainable, the Regulation foresees, as an exception, the possibility for that operator to still apply a surcharge to its roaming customers, only if the national regulatory authority (NRA) agrees, in order to avoid an increase in the domestic prices of that operator.
Why was it not possible to have an earlier date to end roaming charges?
Because a number of steps have to be taken in order to make the end of roaming charges sustainable throughout the EU. The wholesale roaming market (the prices that operators charge each other for the use of their networks) needs to be thoroughly reviewed before the end date.
Have the roaming prices fallen significantly since the EU took action?
Yes, since the EU took action in 2007, prices that consumers pay for roaming across calls, SMS and data have decreased by over 80% since 2007. Data roaming is now up to 91% cheaper compared to 2007. And the volume of the data roaming market has grown by 630%.
Will only those who travel benefit from the new rules?
The increasing number of Europeans who travel in the EU are the primary beneficiaries. The measure will also create a better environment for businesses and for innovation. The new rules will notably promote the cross-border use of connected devices and services (e.g. connected cars) and boost the evolution of mobile apps, on which 1 million Europeans now work.
Roaming charges currently teach users to switch off their mobile phone when abroad. If they are not afraid of their bills anymore, they will use their devices more regularly when they are travelling – this means more opportunities for online businesses and start-ups to provide services to consumers when they travel in the EU
What will be the role of the national regulatory authorities?
Like under existing roaming rules, national regulatory authorities will monitor and supervise compliance of mobile operators with the new rules.
Why do we need rules for net neutrality?
Net neutrality is crucial for users and businesses. It ensures that Europeans have access to the online content and services they wish without any discrimination or interference (like blocking or slowing down) by internet access providers. This is also very important for start-up businesses that commercialise their products and services via the internet and need to be able to compete on an equal footing with larger players.
Until now, there have been no clear rules on net neutrality at EU level, leaving most Europeans without legal protection for their right to access the open internet. Some EU countries have adopted national laws on net neutrality. However, in a Digital Single Market, we cannot afford that 28 Member States adopt 28 different approaches on that issue. The freedom of European citizens to access or distribute internet content must not depend on the country in which they are. Having an EU law on net neutrality will avoid further fragmentation of telecoms regulation in Europe.
In 2012, the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) reported that between 21% and 36% of internet access subscribers were affected by blocking or throttling depending on the type of application (e.g. Voice-over-IP, peer-to-peer traffic).
What has been agreed?
The rules enshrine the principle of net neutrality into EU law: no blocking or throttling of online content, applications and services. It means that there will be truly common EU-wide internet rules, contributing to a single market and reversing current fragmentation.
Every European must be able to have access to the open internet and all content and service providers must be able to provide their services via a high-quality open internet. From the entry into force of the rules, blocking and throttling the internet will be illegal in the EU and users will be free to use their favourite apps no matter the offer they subscribe. Many mobile providers are blocking Skype, Facetime or similar apps or sometime they ask extra money for allowing these services: this will be illegal.
All traffic will be treated equally. This means, for example, that there can be no paid prioritisation of traffic in the internet access service. At the same time, equal treatment allows reasonable day-to-day traffic management according to justified technical requirements, and which must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic and of any commercial considerations. Common rules on net neutrality mean that internet access providers cannot pick winners or losers on the internet, or decide which content and services are available.
How does this agreement balance out the interests of industry and consumers?
The agreed rules establish a right of all internet end-users (consumers and businesses) to access and distribute legal content, services and applications of their choice. The agreement allows efficient network management by internet service providers, subject to clear and strict rules. This means that consumers will have no obstacles to access any online services and applications over their internet access, now and in the future, when faster internet access and new applications will be available.
The rules also enable continued network and service innovation by defining the principles underpinning the relationship between internet access services and innovative services with specific quality requirements. The rules will ensure that the constantly growing quality of the open internet access service will not be hampered by the provision of services such as IPTV or telemedicine which share the same infrastructure. These innovative services may only be offered where and if sufficient capacity for internet access remains available.
Will there be paid prioritisation services in the open internet?
No. Under the legislation, paid prioritisation in the open internet will be banned – in fact, discrimination will be prohibited irrespective of whether or not it is in return for payment. Any traffic management must be based on objective technical requirements rather than on commercial considerations, and must treat equivalent types of traffic equally. Based on this new legislation, all content and application providers will have guaranteed access to end-users in the open internet. This access will not be dependent on the wishes or particular commercial interest of internet service providers. These providers will not be able to block or throttle traffic in their networks or give priority to some particular content or services in exchange for payment. At the same time, end-users and providers of internet access will continue being able to agree on different access speeds and data volumes as they do today.
Will the Regulation allow "class-based" discrimination by internet service providers, even if there is no network congestion?
The Regulation does not allow any special treatment of different classes of internet traffic, as it obliges providers of internet access to treat all traffic equally.
There have always been different traffic categories in the internet. An email is not like a videoconference. A voice call is not like a peer-to-peer download. They have different technical needs and characteristics, and managing traffic according to such technical needs benefits internet users.
The legislative text recognises these objective differences. Article 3(3) enshrines the principle of equal treatment of all traffic, without discrimination, restriction or interference. But it does not exclude the use of reasonable traffic management to optimise overall transmission quality. Such use has to be based on objectively different technical quality requirements and not on commercial considerations, and it must be transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate.
The aim is to avoid that for example vital medical information of a patient receiving home care is delayed because the neighbours are downloading a video. Internet is not different from day-to-day car traffic where you need some basic rules to allow everyone to have access and quality of service.
Reasonable traffic management therefore cannot be used to discriminate against specific categories of content or services such as Peer-to-Peer (P2P). For instance, real-time P2P streaming services have to be handled in accordance with their objective real-time requirement. Providers will also not be allowed to deprioritise or discriminate against encrypted traffic simply by invoking the pretext that they are not able to read and classify the content of such traffic, which in any event would not be compatible with reasonable traffic management. Any deprioritisation of encrypted traffic on the sole basis of the sender's identity would be a breach of the non-discrimination principle.
These are all objective criteria which a specialised national regulatory authority can assess when monitoring market behaviour.
The rules set a very clear prohibition to use traffic management beyond such reasonable cases. In other words, it is not possible to block, slow down or discriminate against specific content, applications or services or specific categories, except in three limited and clearly defined circumstances.
What are the exceptions in the open internet for traffic management?
The rules establish the principle of equal and non-discriminatory traffic management and prohibit any blocking, throttling, degradation or discrimination of internet traffic by internet service providers. This general prohibition is subject to a limited number of tightly defined and exhaustive exceptions:
to comply with Union or national legislation related to the lawfulness of content or with criminal law, or with measures implementing this legislation such as a decision by public authorities or a court order, for instance if a judge or the police have ordered blocking of specific illegal content;
to preserve the security and integrity of the network, for instance to prevent misuse of a network and combat viruses, malware or denial of services attacks;
to minimise network congestion that is temporary or exceptional. This means that operators cannot invoke this exception if their network is frequently congested due to under-investment and capacity scarcity.
These exceptions have to be interpreted strictly and are subject to proportionality criteria on the scope and duration of traffic management measures.
In case of congestion, how can internet service providers manage the traffic?
The legislation allows operators, under very strict conditions, to take action in the network that may affect certain types of traffic in order to mitigate the effects of congestion. Such measures are only permitted if congestion is "exceptional" or "temporary", and provided all traffic of the same category is treated alike. In accordance with the European Parliament's first reading text of 2014, this exception can also apply to preventive action, as this may be more efficient than tackling congestion that has already occurred – but the final text tightens the rules further by allowing such preventive measures only for impending congestion, i.e. which is just about to occur. A provider whose network is continuously or repeatedly congested cannot invoke this exception but has to invest into capacity extension.
What are specialised services ("services other than internet access services")?
Specialised services are services which are different from, and are provided in addition to, the open internet access services and can meet the specific quality requirements of specific content, applications or services.
The new EU net neutrality rules will guarantee the open internet and enable the provision of specialised or innovative services on condition that they do not harm the open internet access.These are services like IPTV, high-definition videoconferencing or healthcare services like telesurgery. They use the internet protocol and the same access network but require a significant improvement in quality or the possibility to guarantee some technical requirements to their end-users that cannot be ensured in the best-effort open internet. The possibility to provide innovative services with enhanced quality of service is crucial for European start-ups and will boost online innovation in Europe. However, such services must not be sold as a substitute for the open internet access, they may only come on top of it. No content, application or service provider can be forced to pay for guaranteed quality or characteristics that it does not need, as the open internet access service will always be available.
By allowing the provision of innovative services, are we not promoting a two-tier internet, or "fast lanes" and "slow lanes"?
No. Every European must be able to have access to the open internet and all content and service providers will be able to provide their services via a high-quality open internet. But more and more innovative services require a certain transmission quality in order to work properly – not just today's services, such as IPTV, but new ones such as telemedicine or automated driving. These and other services that can emerge in the future can be developed as long as they do not harm the availability and the quality of the open internet.
The Regulation sets very clear and strong conditions for the provision of such specialised services and includes the necessary safeguards to ensure that the open internet is not negatively affected. Such services have to meet the following conditions:
They have to be optimised for specific content, applications or services;
Optimisation must be objectively necessary to meet service requirements for specific levels of quality that are not assured by the internet access service.
The text also sets very clear safeguards to avoid that the provision of these services impairs the internet access. These services:
Cannot be a substitute to internet access services;
Can only be provided if there is sufficient network capacity to provide them in addition to any internet access service;
Must not be to the detriment of the availability or general quality of internet access services for end-users.
It is not a question of fast lanes and slow lanes - as paid prioritisation is not allowed - but of making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized and that no one is forced to pay for a service that is not needed.
What is zero rating and how is it affected by the new rules?
Zero rating, also called sponsored connectivity, is a commercial practice used by some providers of internet access, especially mobile operators, not to count the data volume of particular applications or services against the user's limited monthly data volume.
Commercial agreements and practices, including zero rating, must comply with the other provisions of the Regulation, in particular those on non-discriminatory traffic management. Zero-rating could in some circumstances have harmful effects on competition or access to the market by new innovative services and lead to situations where end-users' choice is materially reduced in practice. The new rules therefore contain the necessary safeguards to ensure that providers of internet access cannot circumvent the right of every European to access internet content of their choice, and the provisions on non-discriminatory traffic management, through commercial practices like zero-rating. National authorities will be required to monitor market developments, and will have both the powers and the obligation to assess such practices and agreements, and to intervene if necessary to stop and to sanction unfair or abusive commercial agreements and practices that may hinder the development of new technologies and of new and innovative services or applications.
Since this is a regulation, the rules are also directly enforceable before national courts.
Finally, certain Member States' existing national rules do not need to change if these can be interpreted by regulators and courts consistently with the Regulation, including to protect end-users from commercial practices that are shown to circumvent the rules and materially reduce users' freedom of choice in the specific national circumstances.
Europe's regulators have a long track record in safeguarding open, competitive markets, and the Commission will work closely with the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) to ensure that clear guidance is rapidly provided in this field to complement the Regulation itself.
What is the role of national regulatory authorities?
National regulatory authorities shall monitor and enforce compliance with the open internet rules. These authorities will thus have the power and obligation to examine how the traffic management practices of internet service providers affect the end-users' (consumers and businesses) rights to access and distribute content, applications and services of their choice.
They will have to ensure that the quality of the open internet access service reflects advances in technology.
National regulatory authorities will also have to ensure that the availability and quality of the open internet access service is not degraded by traffic discrimination through internet service providers or by the provision of specialised services.
Regulatory authorities furthermore have the responsibility to assess commercial practices, e.g. as regards differentiated data pricing such as zero-rating, to ensure that they do not circumvent the provisions of the Regulation, including those on non-discriminatory traffic management, and do not lead to situations where the choice of end-users would be materially reduced in practice, in their specific market circumstances.
Regulators are also empowered to set minimum quality of service requirements on internet access providers and other appropriate and necessary measures to ensure that all end-users enjoy an open internet access service of good quality.
What will happen if a service provider will not respect open internet rules?
The Regulation will oblige Member States to set rules on the penalties applicable to infringements of the net neutrality provisions. These penalties have to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive. This means that providers infringing the net neutrality rules will face significant pecuniary and administrative sanctions.
Does the agreement respect existing EU data protection and privacy legislation? What about deep-packet inspection or other monitoring?
The legislators have paid high attention to the importance of protecting privacy and personal data. The new rules will explicitly limit the processing of data to what is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objectives of traffic management. And the processing of this data has to be done in accordance with existing EU data protection and privacy legislation.
In addition, to respond to concerns about practices such as deep-packet inspection, the legislation lays down a general rule applicable to all technologies, that day-to-day traffic management must not monitor the specific content of the traffic transmitted.
How do consumers benefit from the net neutrality rules?
The new rules will create a positive individual right of end users to access or distribute internet content and services of their choice. This right can be enforced by courts as well as by regulatory authorities. The rules apply to all customers of internet access service.
Thus, every European consumer will be able to have access to the open internet and all content and service providers will be able to provide their services via a high-quality open internet without any discrimination or interference by internet access providers. The rules will thereby ensure that internet access providers cannot pick winners or losers on the internet and decide which content and services are available to consumers. This increases consumer choice, competition and consumers' welfare.
The new legislation also improves transparency for consumers. Operators will have to inform their subscribers about the committed internet speeds and the remedies available if they do not get those speeds. This addresses a recurring consumer issue, namely the discrepancy between advertised and actually delivered internet speeds. Studies show that on average consumers only get 75% of the speed advertised by internet service providers.
The new legislation will create contract termination rights (pursuant to national law) for end users if contractual data speeds of internet access service are not delivered.
How can consumers complain?
Under the existing regulatory framework consumers can today complain to their national regulatory authority. In addition, with the new EU rules, providers of internet access will have to put in place their own mechanism to address complaints of end-users relating to rights and obligations on net neutrality.
Why do the EU net neutrality rules set an example worldwide?
The EU rules provide the most comprehensive framework, on a solid legislative foundation, protecting users while ensuring flexibility for innovation.
These rules guarantee that Europeans have access to or can distribute the online content and services they wish without any discrimination or interference (like blocking or slowing down) by internet access providers. This is also very important for any business that wants to commercialise its products and services via the internet. There will be no paid prioritisation of any content or service or category of content or service. Day-to-day traffic management needs to be based on justified technical requirements and must be independent of the origin or destination of the traffic and of any commercial considerations.
The European open internet rules are a comprehensive set of measures that ensures a clear and principled framework for innovation andstrong rights for subscribers, who are entitled to transparency about getting the internet quality that they pay for and to terminate their contracts if this is not the case.
In addition, national regulatory authorities will have the power and duty to intervene, not only against distortive traffic management practices but also against commercial practices that would frustrate or distort the exercise of end users' right to access or distribute content and services.
These future-proof rules enable continued network and service innovation by defining the principles underpinning the relationship between internet access services and innovative services with specific quality requirements. The rules will ensure that the quality of the open internet access service will not be hampered by the provision of services such as internet TV or telemedicine which share the same infrastructure. These innovative services may only be offered where optimised quality is necessary for their requirements and if sufficient capacity for internet access remains available.
Why have net neutrality and roaming rules only been agreed in 2015? What happened to the other elements of the Commission's initial proposal?
The European Commission presented its proposal for a telecoms single market ('Connected Continent') in September 2013 (press release). The European Parliament voted on its first reading of the draft legislation in April 2014 (press release). The Council adopted a mandate to negotiate in March 2015 (press release).
Following the adoption of the Digital Single Market Strategy by the Commission on 6 May, Heads of State and Government agreed on 26 June on the need to strengthen the EU telecoms single market, as part of the Digital Single Market.
After 18 months of negotiations, on 30 June 2015 the European Parliament, Council and Commission reached two milestone agreements on an end to roaming charges and on the first EU-wide rules on net neutrality.
With adoption of its common position on 1 October 2015, the Council has formally completed its first reading. On 2 October 2015 the Commission endorsed Council's first reading position. With the approval by the Plenary of the European Parliament on 27 October 2015 the Regulation has been finally adopted by the co-legislators.
These measures will be completed by an ambitious overhaul of EU telecoms rules in 2016. This reform will include a more effective EU-level spectrum coordination. Creating the right conditions for digital networks and services to flourish is a key objective of the Commission's plan for a Digital Single Market.
Following the adoption of the European Parliament plenary vote on 27 October 2015, when will the rules on open internet and the abolition of roaming finally enter into force?
With adoption of its common position on 1 October 2015, the Council has formally completed its first reading. On 2 October 2015 the Commission endorsed Council's first reading position. With the approval by the Plenary of the European Parliament on 27 October 2015 the Regulation has been finally adopted by the co-legislators. The Regulation then needs to be published in the Official Journal of the European Union in all EU languages and will enter into force three days after publication.
The rules on net neutrality will apply from 30 April 2016. As regards roaming, a first set of significant retail price reductions will also apply from 30 April 2016; the final abolition of roaming charges within the EU is scheduled for June 2017, after a necessary review and reform of the wholesale roaming market.