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The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending mobile phone roaming fees on Thursday, a move that will cheer Europe’s consumers even as it frustrates telecoms companies.
In a sitting of the parliament in Brussels, lawmakers backed legislation that will phase out roaming fees across the 28-country European Union by December 2015.
“This vote is the EU delivering for citizens,” said Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for digital affairs and an ardent advocate for ending the charges.
“This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped-off, and we should have the opportunity to change our mind.”
At the same time, the parliament voted in favor of maintaining “net neutrality”, effectively declaring that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally, regardless of the source or the content.
The decision is a move to limit the ability of network operators to provide quicker Internet access to content providers in exchange for a fee and is another decision in favor of consumers.
Both steps are part of Kroes’s plans to overhaul Europe’s telecoms sector and try to make it more competitive with rivals in the United States and Asia. But they also come just two months before EU elections, when more than 300 million Europeans will vote for candidates to the European Parliament.
Putting an end to mobile roaming – and the phone-bill shock that affects those who use their phones abroad – has been a banner issue for legislators over the past three years, leading to tense exchanges with the powerful telecoms industry.
Sector analysts estimate telecoms revenues could fall around five percent without roaming fees, although the Commission argues that since more consumers will use their mobiles as a result, some of the impact will be offset.
European lawmakers also set restrictions on the kind of online services that telecoms operators can charge popular, bandwidth-hungry content providers such as Facebook, Google and Netflix in exchange for delivering their services at faster speeds.
Operators are fighting for a share of the profits from video streaming and music downloads to offset declining revenues in their traditional phone services. Sales are forecast to fall for the fifth consecutive year in 2014.
The industry says charging for different services and speeds would help fund network upgrades. But Internet activists say that goes against the spirit of an open Internet and would lead to the creation of a two-speed system.
The European Parliament’s vote on Thursday effectively sides with consumers and Internet activists, backing “net neutrality”.
Lobbying group ETNO, whose members include Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica and Telecoms Italia, said the parliamentary vote was a step in the wrong direction.
“Today’s vote risks derailing the original objectives of the Connected Continent Regulation, namely a strong European digital industry igniting growth and jobs creation,” ETNO head Luigi Gambardella said.
Following parliament’s backing, the measures will become law after they are approved by the European Council, which represents the EU’s member states. After further discussions, the Council is expected to take a decision in October.
(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Luke Baker)