EU may have to redraw telecoms plans - EU Commission official

BRUSSELS - The EU's telecoms chief may have to redraw part of her plan to boost broadband speeds and forge a cross-continent market, because of opposition to parts critics say could give big operators unfair advantages, a senior EU Commission official said.

European telecoms Commissioner Neelie Kroes this year announced a 10-step plan to boost investment in infrastructure and make sure EU citizens can download data from the Internet as quickly as their counterparts in Asia and North America.

But as many as nine commissioners have already objected to the plans, particularly parts which could allow telecoms companies to charge content providers and consumers extra for using certain Internet services, the official told Reuters on Monday. The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Kroes' spokesman Ryan Heath declined to comment.

According to a Commission draft seen by Reuters, Kroes wants telecoms companies and content providers to be able to sign agreements with each other as long as such deals do not"substantially impair the quality of Internet access services."

But critics have said this would threaten what many see as one of the core principles of the Internet - neutrality, the idea that all data should be treated equally, and content providers should not be able to negotiate things like faster speeds for their services at extra costs.

Senior Commission officials met earlier on Monday to discuss Kroes' telecoms proposal which will be debated by the other 27 commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday. She will present the package on Wednesday.

"The biggest concern of numerous commissioners is the issue of Net neutrality. Because what Kroes' proposal is doing is restricting and creating exceptions to Net neutrality," the official said.

"Eight to nine commissioners have expressed serious doubts. This will be a 'B' point at the college. Everything is up for discussion," the official said. A "B" item means topics are subject to debate before they can be adopted by the Commission.

Kroes said when she introduced the plan, a more unified market was needed because investment was being hampered by time-consuming civil planning rules, widely divergent prices for both consumers and businesses, and scarcity of radio spectrum.

Kroes' blueprint for a single telecoms market, which also covers mobile spectrum and price regulation, comes as the telecoms industry struggles with falling revenues, stringent regulation and fierce competition.

Europe's telecoms industry will face a 0.5 to 2 per cent annual drop in revenues by the end of 2020, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group for telecoms lobby group ETNO, leaving a huge investment gap of 110 billion to 170 billion euros.

But critics have said the encouragements to let content providers strike deals with telecoms companies would inevitably favour existing large firms.

"This is inherently anti-competitive; only companies as big as Google have that wingspan," said Jeremie Zimmermann, co-founder of Paris-based advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.

"Kroes' reform implicitly recognises the right for network providers (including ISP) to arbitrarily discriminate and charge Internet services with the sole scope to privilege some Internet services instead of others, therefore without objective justifications," telecoms consultant Innocenzo Genna wrote on his blog.

Kroes' proposals will have to be approved by the 28 EU countries and European Parliament before they can be made into law.