For someone who is used to the EU telecoms policies that have been going around in circles discussing how far to open and regulate incumbent operators’ last mile in order not to stifle their investment in fibre to the home and other FTTx solutions, the US discussion that closely links the issue of broadband competition with the notion of net neutrality seems rather unusual. Not that European politics would keep quiet about net neutrality: in fact, since 2009, European regulators have been empowered to impose net neutrality obligations on operators, whereas BEREC, the Board of European National Regulatory Authorities, introduced the concepts of ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ traffic management measures, which may in one way or another become hard law by means of the current ‘Connected Continent’ legislative proposal.
An ocean apart
However, this separate stream of ‘net neutrality’ that is currently gaining pace seems rather odd when put in the context of Europe’s lenient approach towards its incumbents telcos’ behaviour. After it has become clear that full copper-to-fibre access infrastructure replacement was not going to take place across Europe any time soon (regardless of end-users paying for it through their line rental), the EU policy-makers responded by relaxing regulated wholesale prices. Although ‘equivalence of access’ has been promoted as a trade-off for that, the ‘real’ functional separation of the access network remained the ‘remedy of last resort’.
In a way the American pro-competitive focus on net neutrality can be understood: wholesale unbundling had limited success in the US and bitstream was pragmatically declared an unregulated ‘information service’ by Kevin Martin’s FCC. The middle, independent ‘ISP’ layer is therefore significantly weaker in the US than it is in Europe, where new entrants often control large market shares using regulated wholesale bitstream or unbundling products. On the contrary, controlling the access network infrastructure is in the US more likely to include the ability to block certain content or slow down certain applications’ traffic.
EU should learn from US situation
Instead of continuing to feel superior when in comes to telecoms policies, the EU should learn from the present American situation. With a strong ISP service competition, Europe might currently indeed feel a less strong need for net neutrality. However, as the foundations of Europe’s ISP service competition continue to be eroded through technologies such as vectoring that hardly bring a step change in broadband service but can be used to limit wholesale access, net neutrality may be getting a more prominent place on the EU regulatory agenda.
It remains to be seen whether OTT players, including the ones from the other side of the Atlantic, will continue to be welcome in a new, more concentrated European NGA landscape. The moves such as that of European Parliament against Google might not be all that easy to reconcile with a genuine desire for an open internet.
For a comprehensive overview of regulatory and technological developments in NGA, OTT and IPTV competition, investment and ‘net neutrality’ policies, why not check out our monthly broadband and privacy report series?