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Committee of MEPs support EU telecoms market reforms

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have backed proposals to ban mobile telephone roaming charges in Europe by 15 December 2015, apart from in "exceptional cases" to be set out by the European Commission.

The EU Industry Research and Energy Committee (ITRE) also backed proposals to boost net neutrality in Europe, by stopping internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing down services which are provided by their competitors.

In addition, ITRE called for the Commission to make it easier for companies to trade in and lease rights to use parts of radio spectrum, and ensure these rights are valid for at least 25 years.

However  ITRE did not back the European Commission's proposals to regulate prices for international phone calls made from the caller’s home country.

The developments are the latest step forward in Europe's plans to create a single telecoms market, designed to benefit consumers and business across Europe.

Spanish MEP Pilar del Castillo Vera, who is leading the European Parliament's work on the telecoms package, said: "With today's Industry Committee vote the European Parliament has taken one great step towards consolidating the telecommunications single market. The committee has not only proposed abolishing retail roaming charges for voice, SMS and data by 15 December 2015, but also tabled substantive proposals, for example  on efficient spectrum management, that will allow 4G and 5G deployment throughout Europe. Moreover we have built in further safeguards for internet openness, by ensuring that users can run and provide applications and services of their choice as well as strengthening the internet as a key driver of competitiveness, economic growth, social development and innovation."

The European Commission announced last September that it planned to scrap roaming charges by 2016, as part of what it described as "the most ambitious plan in 26 years of telecoms market reform" to create a single telecoms market across the EU.  A commission survey of 28,000 people across the Europe which was released in February found that more than a quarter of European travellers turn their phones off when overseas, while 47% of people also do not use the internet when travelling.

EU vice-president Neelie Kroes said at the time: "Consumers are limiting their phone use in extreme ways, and this makes no sense for the companies, either. Millions of businesses face extra costs because of roaming, and companies like app makers lose revenue, too. Roaming makes no sense in a single market - it's economic madness."

Today ITRE members voted to back proposals which would ban roaming charges by 15 December 2015. However it also asked the Commission to lay down guidelines for exceptional cases in which companies would be allowed to apply these charges, to protect telecoms companies against "anomalous or abusive usage of retail roaming services." Such exceptional charges should, however, be below the caps laid down in current roaming rules, ITRE said.

ITRE also voted to boost net neutrality across Europe. Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs will deliver all content requested by a customer equally, not allowing content producers to have preferential access to subscribers. A statement issued by the European Parliament said that ITRE members inserted rules into the proposals to prevent telecoms companies from "degrading or blocking internet connections to their competitors’ services and applications".

Companies would still able to offer specialised services of higher quality, said ITRE, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive cloud applications, provided that this did not interfere with the internet speeds promised to other customers. ISPs would only be allowed to block or slow down the internet in exceptional cases, for example where specifically ordered by a court, the statement said.

The committee also inserted amendments into the proposals which it says are designed to make it easier for companies to trade in and lease rights to use radio spectrum. This is designed to facilitate the use of all available parts of the radio spectrum as mobile internet connections for downloading and uploading content increase, the parliament said.

However according to the European Voice newspaper, ITRE voted down attempts by the Commission to gain greater powers to regulate the telecoms sector at the expense of BEREC, the European agency of national regulators. It also watered down a proposal to introduce a single authorisation for telecoms operators in the European Union, the newspaper said. Members of ITRE voted to adopt the proposals by 30 votes to 12, with 14 abstentions. The telecoms package must now go to a vote before the European Parliament at its plenary session in April. In a statement the Parliament said it will be  one of the first priorities for the next Parliament, following the European elections in May. 

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