How will net neutrality affect America?

Same goal, different approaches? Net neutrality in the EU and the USA

At one of the world's largest technology conferences, a public discussion on net neutrality got down to business on Monday when EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip defended the bloc's two-year-old legislation while sharing a stage with the American official who is currently doing a similar one US law repealed.

Ansip and Ajit Pai, the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explained their different positions on the regulation of Internet traffic in a one-hour discussion, which was occasionally met with heckling from the audience.

Net neutrality laws regulate how Internet service providers deal with websites and services that use their networks. And they should prevent operators from charging higher tariffs for faster access.

Legislation on how network operators should handle Internet traffic has resulted in violent disagreements between telecommunications companies and civil rights groups.

The debate on net neutrality took place on the first day of this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, ​​which is expected to attract around 100,000 visitors. The annual event began yesterday Monday and was otherwise dominated by presentations of new equipment and speeches from tech CEOs.

Ansip, responsible for the EU's digital single market, used his speaking time to underline his support for the existing EU rules: "I don't want a digital highway for the lucky few while others have to use a digital gravel road," he said .

Following Ansip's speech, Pai explained how he believes net neutrality hinders companies' ability to invest. His agency's decision to lift network neutrality will give telecom operators the ability to pay for expensive new network infrastructures that they need if they want to offer faster cellular services in the next few years, argued Pai.

"We believe our decision will give the private sector a greater incentive to invest in 5G networks for the future," he said.

In an interview published on Monday, Ansip made it clear to EURACTIV.com: "We have no concerns that the rules for an open internet are really an obstacle to investment."

After their short speeches, Ansip and Pai took part in a panel discussion with Marcelo Claure, CEO of US telecommunications giant Sprint, and Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of the GSMA industrial group that organizes the Mobile World Congress.

This discussion made it clear what an emotional topic net neutrality can be: The conversation was interrupted twice by calls from the audience to “talk about facts” or “finally move on to the next topic”. Dozens of listeners left the large auditorium while the discussion was still going on.

Ansip struggled to smooth things over, repeating a statement from the Monday lunchtime interview: He believes both the European Commission and US regulators want to prevent companies from overcharging and blocking certain internet traffic - the approaches but are different.

However, Ansip also admitted that he had concerns about how the US suspension of net neutrality could affect European companies if American operators block access to their websites and online services.

“We are particularly concerned about this European content in the United States, how this content will be treated going forward. And of course we will not accept blockade, throttling, discrimination, ”he warned.

Net neutrality was also an issue at a meeting that Ansip held on Monday with EU Digital Commissioner Marija Gabriel and CEOs of eleven major European telecommunications companies.

In a briefing document for the meeting, the removal of net neutrality by the USA was judged cautiously. It represents an "increasing fragmentation of rules and regulations".

However, the document available to EURACTIV also states that the decision by the US communications authority FCC strengthens "concerns about the suitability of the restrictive EU approach to net neutrality in relation to innovative services and 5G business models."

A review of the existing rules, which the Commission has planned for next year, could be seen as an "opportunity for a thorough evaluation".

The meeting was attended by CEOs from Deutsche Telekom, BT, Hutchison Whampoa, KPN, Orange, Proximus, Telefónica, Telenor, Telia, TIM and Vodafone. Some of them are asking the Commission to make certain changes to the bloc's legislation.

BEREC, the umbrella group of telecom regulators from EU countries, is currently collecting information on how net neutrality is currently working and being implemented in all member states. The organization intends to submit its analysis to the Commission before the review next year.

In an interview with EURACTIV.com last month, BEREC chairman Johannes Gungl gave a forecast: the Commission will keep EU legislation but adapt some of its measures. "For example, there could be a little fine-tuning of the rules with 5G," Gungl said at the time.

In fact, the telecom CEOs could hit a nerve with the commission if they can credibly demonstrate that the net neutrality rules could stand in the way of their plans to introduce 5G cellular networks. The EU executive urges companies to accelerate the estimated € 56.6 billion investment needed to deploy and support the new technology.

Compared to other regions of the world, European operators are investing significantly less money in the development of 5G. While some trials with the new technology are already underway in the EU, it is expected that European operators will not provide their 5G services until much later than companies in the USA and Asia.

The national governments of the EU member states meanwhile agreed last year that 5G should be available for commercial use across the Union by 2025.