The European Commission has been trying to establish a Digital Single Market (DSM) that makes goods and services accessible to everyone in the EU and broadens the reach and potential of start-ups, businesses, and governments. The legislation has been marching toward its approval and application, and today marks the first step on the path toward the DSM. The European Parliament, Council, and Commission have agreed, after almost two years of proposals and negotiations, on the first crucial pillar of this plan: a single market in telecoms.
That means two important changes in the telecom industry are about to be implemented in the EU: the end of roaming charges and the establishment of an open Internet. Both are complemented by better transparency and more consumer protection so that users are aware of their rights and consumption when roaming, and can recognize Net Neutrality violations.
End of roaming charges by June 2017
As of the 15th of June 2017, roaming charges won't be applied in the EU. This means that when you travel inside the Union, you will pay the same prices for calls, SMS, and data as you do in your home country (which has to be a EU member too, obviously). And any usage you incur while roaming will count toward your regular domestic plan, without any added fees. So if you have a 10GB data plan in France and use 1GB when you're in Germany, you will have 9GB left.
The EU has been governing roaming prices since 2007, essentially cutting the prices of call, SMS, and data roaming by 80 to 90% over the past years. There will be no price adjustment made in 2015, so the additional charges will remain the same: €0.19 per minute, €0.06 per SMS, and €0.20 per MB of data, excl. VAT.
The prices will first receive a significant drop in April 2016 when operators will only be able to charge an additional €0.05 per minute (74% less), €0.02 per SMS (67% less), and €0.05 per MB of data (75% less) compared to their domestic prices (excl. VAT).
On June 15th 2017, these charges will be completely abolished and you will pay the same amount whether you're traveling or at home for all of your calls, messages, and data usage.
This two-year buffer has been approved so that operators can agree on the charges they require from each other to allow roaming over their networks.
Fair use safeguard
These new roaming rules might spawn a lot of abuse from consumers purchasing a plan in one country where it's cheaper and using it permanently in their home country to benefit from the savings. That's why the Commission will later define the details of a fair use limit, where a small fee (that's lower than the current charges) would be applied to discourage this kind of 'permanent roaming' strategy.
Net Neutrality and the open Internet
The EU is following in the footsteps of the USA in approving the establishment of a neutral and open internet. While some European countries have had their individual laws, this new agreement forces the application of a unified set of rules in the entire EU, thus forging the path for the Digital Single Market. These rules, which the Commission claims to be "the strongest and most comprehensive [...] in the world," will be applied on April 30th 2016.
No blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization
Under the open Internet agreement, discrimination will be banned, whether it affects individuals or services. All services, apps, and content will be equally accessible by all users, so operators won't be able to charge you to unblock and let you access a certain site or service, or to access it faster, neither will they be able to charge service providers to prioritize their bandwidth over competitors or other traffic.
Exceptions, specialized services, and zero rating
The application of net neutrality is subject to a few exceptions under the new EU law. First, there's the usual leeway given to operators in their daily traffic management, which means that technical reasons might force them to slow down certain traffic, but that has to be applied irrespective of its origin or destination.
Second, the rules won't be applied in the case of Union-wide or national laws ordering the blocking of some illegal content (eg. child pornography), in instances of misuse of networks (eg. viruses, DOS attacks), when prior request or consent is given by the user to filter specific content (eg. parental filters, spam), and finally in a temporary or exceptional network congestion state. The Commission makes sure it states in the latter case that "operators cannot invoke this exception if their network is frequently congested due to under-investment and capacity scarcity."
Third, the Commission singles out what it calls "specialized services" that Internet providers can supply with the caveat that they can't sacrifice the availability or quality of the open Internet for them. These include IPTV, high-definition videoconferencing, automated driving, and telesurgery for example, and have higher technical requirements than regular traffic. While those may seem like preferential treatment, the Commission clarifies that "such services must not be sold as substitute for the open Internet access, they come on top of it," and, "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."
Finally, zero rating, which describes offers by Internet providers to not count data from certain services or apps (essentially rendering them free), will be allowed under the new rules, but it's subject to monitoring from regulatory authorities since it doesn't block competition but might stifle it.
Beyond today's agreement
These rules are established first and foremost to avoid fragmentation in the EU telecoms market. They allow consumers a more unified and uniform access across all member countries, and provide companies with a single set of rules and laws to follow while widening opportunities and making overseas business less hassling.
After today's agreement, the text has to be formally approved by the European Parliament and Council then published in the Official Journal in order to enter into force. This single telecoms market plan will be an important foundation in the upcoming 2016 EU telecom rules legislation, it will also be a stepping stone toward the Commission's Digital Single Market initiative.