Among the key challenges for European telecommunications policy over the next year are the resolution of the ongoing network neutrality debate, broadband policy, and the realisation of the Digital Single Market. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment.
Debates on net neutrality are raging on both sides of the Atlantic, but we are still waiting for final resolution. It is clear, however, that the US FCC is responding to a substantially different set of concerns than those faced in Europe. The market environment in the US is substantially different from that in Europe, largely as a result of a different approach to regulation of electronic communications. Most Europeans can choose among multiple network operators, while most Americans can choose only between one cable operator and one telecoms provider – this means that informed consumer choice has far less scope to operate in the US than it does in Europe. To the extent that the problem in the US is substantially different from that in Europe, the most appropriate solution is also likely to be different.
A recent study I conducted for the European Parliament suggests taking a balanced, pragmatic, common sense approach to this issue, grounded in a thorough understanding of (1) the relevant technology and economics, and (2) the attitudes and concerns of content and application providers, network operators, regulatory authorities, and consumers.
Recognising that traffic differentiation has multiple uses, some of which could be beneficial to consumers while others could be harmful, the study attempts to focus on areas of potential harm.
An open question is whether we need more regulation to keep the open internet open and, if so, what form should it take? In Europe, BEREC (on behalf of the National Regulatory Authorities, NRAs, that comprise it) has been clear and consistent in stating that problematic network neutrality incidents have been rare, and that the NRAs feel that they already have sufficient power to deal with any problems that are likely to occur.
There are, to be sure, areas of legitimate concern. In the Commission’s 2013 public consultation on network neutrality, there was widespread agreement that it would be problematic for a network operator to favour affiliated content over that of competitors. Concerns were also voiced over unfavourable treatment of Voice over IP (VoIP).
An immediate concern that was visible in the consultation, and apparently the main driver of the European Commission’s inclusion of network neutrality provisions in the Telecoms Single Market package that it submitted on 11 September 2013, was that the Member States might introduce mutually inconsistent or incompatible legislative measures to address network neutrality concerns.
I would be happy if a thoughtful, balanced, and cautious European approach to network neutrality were to emerge that prevents or at least limits regulatory or legislative fragmentation among the Member States, and that does not needlessly restrict prioritisation of services that would legitimately benefit from prioritisation (such as real time voice and videoconferencing over the public Internet, mission critical services such as public protection and disaster relief (PPDR), transport, and health).
European broadband policy
I worry that Europe is placing too much emphasis on supply side stimulus of high speed broadband deployment. The evidence that broadband adoption benefits society is strong; the evidence for incremental benefits from fast broadband, however, is weak.
Moreover, many of the challenges cannot be solved solely on the supply side. Survey data makes clear that those who do not have broadband in Europe today are in the great majority of instances limited neither by lack of availability nor by high price, but rather by the fact that nobody in the family sees the need for it. Trying to solve problems like these solely on the supply side is like pushing on a rope – to get things to move, it is necessary to pull.
As someone who spent many years working in the United States, I have always found it puzzling that cable television coverage is not greater in Europe than is the case today. The failure of cable to deploy is clearly not just a matter of money; moreover, it is not simply a matter of failure to cover rural areas. There is no cable coverage at all in Italy and Greece, nor for that matter in Madrid and Barcelona. Addressing gaps like these with cable would require an integrated and well thought through approach that dealt with lack of municipal permissions, a highly dysfunctional media environment in Italy, and a range of other ills.
The Digital Single Market
Full achievement of a European Digital Single Market continues to be a key objective of the European institutions. The Juncker July political agenda, and its realisation in marching orders to the new commissioners, is in this sense far more promising than that of Barroso II. Regulatory harmonisation is present, broadband deployment is present, but they are there as part of a broader programme that also encompasses digital skills and literacy, digital entrepreneurship, and attempts to facilitate greater use (including cross-border use) of content.
Guest post by Scott Marcus, Individual expert.
J. Scott Marcus is a Director and Department Manager for WIK-Consult GmbH (the consulting arm of the WIK, a research institute in economics and regulatory policy for network industries, located in Bad Honnef, Germany). He previously served as Senior Advisor for Internet Technology for the U.S. FCC. Prior to that, he was Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Genuity, Inc. (GTE Internetworking). In 2004, Scott was attached to the European Commission (DG INFSO) as a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.