'End to roaming charges by 2017'

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ROAMING charges should be abolished within the European Union by June 2017, the European Commission has announced.

And from April 2016, mobile operators will only be allowed to charge a very small amount extra for calls, texts and data usage outside a European's home nation.

The European Commission also announced new rules to ensure net neutrality - the requirement for operators to treat the majority of internet traffic equally - with a few noted exceptions.

But the proposals aren't yet cast in stone: they must be formally approved by the Parliament and Council, before being put to each of the various member states.

Cheaper, then free

All going well, from the middle of June 2017 it should cost us no more to call someone using our mobile phone in France or Latvia than it would if we called them from London or Manchester.

The European Commission says the agreement with the European Parliament and Council is the culmination of a decade's work to make roaming cheaper and fairer for users.

Roaming charges are already far cheaper than they were in 2007 as a result of their efforts, with data roaming being as much as 91% cheaper than it was back then.

Users, at least, have been appreciative of their efforts, with data roaming increasing dramatically since the caps were introduced.

Originally the Commission and Parliament had wanted to end roaming charges from April next year. Instead operators will face a final round of reductions in the amount they can charge for roaming on top of their usual prices.

So from next April they'll only be able to charge an extra:

It may not be exactly what the Commission were after, but it will still represent up to a 75% saving on the cost of roaming at present.

But as we commented in March, operators have previously shown reluctance to do any more than the minimum when past reductions were announced.

There's already concern that telecoms providers will respond to the roaming cap by putting their standard domestic prices up.

The Commission say this won't happen, as domestic prices have also been coming down over recent years.

But in an effort to appease the providers they've put forward a "fair use safeguard" to help prevent customers taking advantage of cheaper services from other countries.

Say an operator in France charges less for calls, texts and data than a competitor based in Spain. The French provider could find themselves getting an awful lot more customers from Spain - and be obliged to give them free roaming at the cheaper price.

The European Commission say the fair use safeguard will help prevent such abuses, and protect domestic markets - but the details of how it'll work haven't been revealed.

Open, not neutral...

What is clearer, however, is the EU definition of net neutrality - or rather a guaranteed "open Internet".

As the name suggests, it's not full net neutrality. Some of the compromises suggested in March will remain; as the European Commission put it:

"...all traffic will be treated equally, subject to strict and clearly identified public interest exceptions, such as network security or combating child pornography, and subject to efficient day-to-day network management by Internet service providers."

They also say "paid prioritisation will not be allowed" - directly addressing one of the main concerns to come out of the previous round of negotiations.

At the same time, however, ISPs will be allowed to prioritise services that need high quality internet connections, such as internet TV - as long as they don't affect the overall quality of other internet traffic.

One of the politicians who's been fighting for a stricter version of net neutrality, Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake, is disappointed at the ambiguity of the language used:

"Net neutrality is key... The compromise reached now is a watered down version... I pushed for clearer language that unequivocally safeguards net neutrality in Europe."

...but still more open

Ms Schaake might want to take heart from the thought that getting net neutrality to stick in the US has so far taken the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) three attempts - and the redefinition of broadband as a utility.

As the FCC legislation was only passed in February, it's still too early to say whether the bigger ISPs are going to accept it or mount a fight back as they have in the past.

As far as the European definition goes, UK ISPs shouldn't have too much to complain about.

Much of it reads rather like the voluntary Open Internet Code of Practice which all the UK's major British providers signed up to in 2012.

That basically allows ISPs to traffic manage services how they like - as long as they clearly communicate their policies to their customers.

Where there may be a bit of resistance in the UK - possibly at Government level - is over content filtering.

UK ISPs have been under considerable political pressure to filter content by default, but a compromise of sorts has been reached whereby most have made opting in to such filters a very obvious part of their set up process.

However, in January, Sky Broadband confirmed that they were enabling a degree of network level filtering by default for both new and existing customers.

Other ISPs have made it the case that customers must choose one way or the other to opt in or out of such filters, but Sky's take is that anyone who doesn't actively say yes or no is essentially opting in:

"Customers can activate Sky Broadband Shield, adjust or decline it at any time. Or they can simply wait for us to turn it on."

This could be seen as going against the agreement reached in Europe this week, which demands that such filtering can only be done with "the prior request or consent" of users - there should be no "default on".

Shot in the arm

The Commission say what they call "the strongest and most comprehensive open Internet rules in the world, complete with strong end-user rights" will be in force from the start of May next year.

They also state that the Europe-wide legislation will help "avoid fragmentation in the single market" and make it easier for businesses "to work across borders".

This sounds like the agreement could help provide a shot in the arm for the changes needed to make the Digital Single Market a reality by the end of 2016 as hoped.

That relies in part on the review of the 2009 EU Telecoms Package rules - which, as a result of this agreement, should now be much more ambitious.

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