EU countries agree on watered-down roaming and net neutrality plans

Discussions with the European Parliament on a final compromise text will probably continue until the fall

European Union countries have proposed keeping roaming charges around at least until mid-2018, going against proposals from the European Parliament and Commission for their all-out abolition by the end of the year.

At the same time, representatives of the countries proposed weakening the net neutrality rules already agreed on by the Parliament and the Commission. The counter-proposal sets the stage for heated discussions as the 28 EU member states, gathered as the Council of the EU, try to reach a compromise with the EU's other two law-making bodies on a new telecommunications law before the end of June.

The Council proposed introducing a basic roaming allowance within which consumers can make and receive calls, send text messages and use data services without paying roaming fees. Once this allowance is used up though, the operator will be allowed to charge a fee, albeit much lower than current charges, the Council said. It proposes reassessing the situation in mid-2018 to see if further regulatory measures are needed to phase out charges altogether.

The Council decided to go ahead with its proposals despite calls urging it not approve watered down versions of the original plans.

The Council's plans were heavily criticized by a group of 118 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in a letter addressed to national telecom ministers ahead of the decision on Wednesday. According to them, the Council's proposal lacks ambition.

Opting not to abolish roaming charges by the end of the year will disappoint citizens, they said.

Similar issues arise with the Council's net neutrality plans. Under the proposal, blocking or slowing down specific traffic by ISPs would be prohibited. However, a number of exceptions would be allowed to manage traffic, for instance in order to prevent cyberattacks, the Council said.

ISPs and operators would also be allowed to favor services that require "a specific level of quality", but only if they can ensure the quality of Internet access. Under these proposals, priority could be given to services that are needed to keep automated cars on the road and to systems that manage traffic security.

The definitions given by the Council are too vague, the MEPs said, adding that the weakened proposals on net neutrality go against the Parliament's repeated calls for clear definitions.

The discussion over net neutrality and roaming is far from over. Council and Parliament must now reconcile their positions, a process that could well take until early fall, a Parliament official said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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