The European Union reached a preliminary deal on Tuesday to abolish mobile roaming charges across the 28-country bloc by June 2017 and to require telecom operators to treat all Internet traffic equally. The draft agreement marks an important step in the EU's plan to overhaul the continent's digital market to boost growth and catch up with the United States and Asia.
"Under the agreement, roaming surcharges in the European Union will be abolished as of June 15, 2017," Latvia, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said in a statement after 12 hours of talks between it and EU lawmakers. The deal will require approval from the European Parliament and EU member states, some of whom have been pushing for roaming charges to be abolished in December 2018. Eastern European countries have feared that operators might hike domestic prices if roaming charges are removed prematurely, while countries with a lot of tourists, such as Spain and Greece, have benefited from higher prices.
The delay has angered consumer rights groups who say member states are defending the interests of their national operators. In an interim move, roaming charges will drop in April 2016, with maximum surcharges of 0.05 euros per minute of a call or megabyte of data and 0.02 euros per text sent.
That will make the maximum roaming charge about 75 percent cheaper than under current tariff caps, the Commission said. The European Commission has been setting caps on roaming prices since 2007 and says that retail prices for cross-border calls, texts and data have fallen by more than 80 percent and for data by up to 91 percent.
On the issue of net neutrality, the EU plans to order telecoms operators to treat all Internet traffic equally and that blocking would only be allowed for clear reasons, such as counter cyber attacks or child pornography. Companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telecom Italia had lobbied to have more leeway to tap into a potentially lucrative source of revenue, but Internet activists say this could create a two-speed Internet that benefits companies with deep pockets.The rules could benefit start-ups that showcase their business or sell on the Internet and need to be able to compete on an equal footing with larger players. The latter would not be able to pay for privileged access to end-users. "The access to a start-up's website will not be unfairly slowed down to make way for bigger companies. No service will be stuck because it does not pay an additional fee to Internet service providers. There won't be gatekeepers to decide what you can and cannot access," the Commission said. The common EU-wide Internet rules are to enter force in all 28 members on April 30, 2016.