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Europe Takes Up Debate on Universal Internet Access

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By KEVIN J. O’BRIEN, NYTimes

BERLIN — The global debate over how access to the Internet should be determined and paid for has attracted free speech advocates, telephone network operators and big online businesses like Google and Facebook. This week, arguments over so-called network neutrality move to Brussels, where the European Commission and Parliament are holding a daylong meeting that is expected to draw speakers from industry, government and academia.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission attempted this year to bar operators — telecommunications and cable companies that offer connections to the Internet — from selectively managing the data flowing over their networks to assure that all customers got adequate service. The commission tried to prohibit their extracting payment from big traffic generators like Google, but the proposal is bogged down in legal challenges. In Europe, the debate is not as far along, but the outcome is equally clouded.

Important signals about the Continent’s approach may come Thursday from Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for telecommunications, who is scheduled to speak at the meeting and must report to the Parliament on the status of net neutrality by the end of the year. In the absence of new regulation, Europe appears to be on track to give mobile network operators a relatively free hand in managing the data flowing over their networks. That could include the imposition of additional charges on rivals, like the voice-over-Internet service Skype.

Ms. Kroes, in public statements this year, has warned operators not to bar rival services from their mobile networks but has not indicated that she intends to push for tighter regulation that would limit the way operators can manage their data traffic. Jean-Jacques Sahel, the European director of regulatory affairs at Skype, said Ms. Kroes needed to make sure that the 27 E.U. national regulators — who must establish rules by May 1 defining “reasonable” traffic management practices — take an aggressive approach to ensure that operators do not discriminate against rivals.

In most European markets, Mr. Sahel said, operators are still charging an extra fee, usually €10 to €15 a month, or $14 to $21, for customers wishing to use voice-over-Internet services. “This is a form of economic discrimination,” Mr. Sahel said. “The question is: Where will this stop?” Ms. Kroes declined to comment through a spokesman, Jonathan Todd.

Network operators say that charging mobile consumers for rival services like Skype is widely accepted and that there has been no evidence of widespread censorship or discrimination that would warrant more regulation. A Sept. 30 report by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, the European Union’s telecommunications advisory group, seemed to confirm the industry position, concluding that there was no new need for regulation at this point.

The group, which is made up of the bloc’s national telecommunications regulators, said operators in more than a dozen countries — Austria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, France, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Britain — had either blocked or throttled services like Skype or file-sharing Web sites. In general, using Skype allows callers to avoid paying the operators for local and long-distance calling; file-sharing sites put steep demands on mobile networks.

But most blocking stopped, the report said, after being reported to local media or regulators. “To date, the survey carried out by Berec shows that incidents remain few and most of them have been solved voluntarily,” the regulators concluded. “These findings imply that there is currently little reason to undertake any new regulatory measures.”

Pierre Louette, the secretary general for the French carriers division of France Télécom, said extra charges to mobile users wishing to use voice-over-Internet services like Skype were accepted by regulators. “These charges are considered standard industry practice,” Mr. Louette said during an interview. “We basically have to have the ability to generate revenue from our networks or we won’t be able to create the networks of the future.”

Another issue could present access issues, the regulators warned in their report — the shift away from flat-rate broadband packages to tiered service plans that tie greater speed and access to higher monthly fees. That transition is already under way. In Spain this year, Vodafone has been testing a series of tiered pricing packages. Richard Feasey, the regulatory policy director at Vodafone, said consumers had reacted positively.

“From what we have seen in the blogs, our customers in Spain appear to be totally comfortable with paying more for greater levels of service,” Mr. Feasey said, comparing graduated Internet service with an airline’s economy, business and first-class ticket prices.

With the debate in flux on both sides of the Atlantic, U.S. operators are weighing in in Europe. Mick Corkerry, the European executive director for AT&T, is scheduled to speak at the Brussels hearing Thursday [November 11, 2010]. AT&T is a sponsor of a Brussels policy group called the Center for European Policy Studies, which opposes new net neutrality rules on operators.

Andrea Renda, the center’s head of regulatory affairs and a professor of antitrust law at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome, said more network management regulations would “open a Pandora’s Box of new rules that would inevitably spread to search, apps and cloud computing.” In the absence of new rules from Brussels, individual European countries will define their own versions of “reasonable” network traffic management, in most cases leaving great discretion to network operators, said Chris Marsden, a senior lecturer on Internet law at the University of Essex in Britain.

So far, only the French regulator, Arcep, has released a set of 10 principles it believes should guide operators’ behavior. In general, it recommended that Internet users be guaranteed the right to send and receive information of their choice and to use the applications and services they want, as long as they do not harm the network. Operators could suppress damaging Internet behavior, Arcep said, as long as the actions taken adhered to principles of relevance, proportionality, nondiscrimination, efficiency and transparency.

“But even Arcep is not proposing to go a step further and set deadlines for compliance and penalties,” Mr. Marsden said.

Even the French approach raises the potential for selective, arbitrary traffic management by network operators, said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the European Parliament from Hanover, Germany, who will also be speaking at the event Thursday.

“The danger is there, because there are no rules on how the priorities should be set from the providers,” he said.

The outcome of the debate also has ramifications for Internet businesses like Google and Facebook, whose popular video-streaming services are generating much of the increased data load being handled by European mobile operators. In the United States, online businesses like Google sought to prohibit operators from charging online businesses to carry its services. On Sept. 9 in Paris, Google’s chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, met privately with a group of about a dozen mid- and top-level executives from several European mobile operators, who pressed him on whether Google was ready to help pay for the traffic it was creating.

“He was extremely complimentary to the operators who were there, but basically he ducked the question,” said one executive who attended the event. “The message seemed to be: you build the networks and we’ll make the profit.”

Author: barenose

Have a look at my web site for ideas about the work I've done. I look forward to hearing from you about your next project, the Internet, the environment, or life. www.barenose.com

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