Why the #TelecomSingleMarket Is Much More than the End of #Roaming

As has been widely reported, the power triangle of EU institutions have reached an agreement on the so-called Telecom Single Market. The reporting has mainly focused on the expectation that the new rules will put an end to roaming, which obviously is good news. The telecom industry has had many years to make voluntary changes (and some carriers have introduced new subscription plans that cater to European cross-border travelers’ needs) but failed so now the government acts. Lose no sleep over the telecoms cries that this will hurt infrastructure investment, carriers make big profits and can easily fund new cables and base stations also post-TSM.

I would be more concerned about new players in the market, such as Silicon Valley’s internet platforms offering access via satellites or balloons, potentially by-passing national telecom regulation and competing with the telecom incumbents’ existing offers for the same subscribers but completely different terms. Except I asked one of the architects of the Telecom Single Market-proposals, Pierre Goerens of the Luxemburg permanent representation to the EU and he said the same rules will apply regardless of distribution method (which could be something to lose sleep over if you happen to be a European telecom executive). I will be curious to see how this plays out in real life, EU regulators attempting to maintain a level competition playing field at the same time pledging loyalty to the open internet which corporations under California law use to disrupt the European incumbents. The lessons from let’s say television and video content suggest that there is little the European institutions can do to keep that playing field level, but perhaps the good people at the institutions know better.

But besides the roaming discussion, there are many other interesting aspects to the TSM-proposal. In fact, I find many reasons to applaud this initiative. Surprisingly many reasons, it is almost as if the negotiators read the Netopia manifesto! Telecoms can no longer discriminate competing services (such as voice-over IP-telephony) by throttling their bandwidth. They won’t be able to use traffic shaping-practices to minimize costs, such as when peer-to-peer-traffic transits through third-party carriers mobile networks. Carriers will no longer decide which services can get the priority lane, the new rules demand transparency and regulation from government agencies. Making sure that all member states apply the definition of specialized services in the same way (lest we will get 28 different telecom single markets!) will be a challenge for the regulators. But all told, this is a big step in the right direction.

You can think of this as the moment when the building codes where put in place and inspections rather than good faith begun to guarantee the safety of constructions. Of course you can ask why it took them so long, whoever thought it would be a good idea to let private interests make the rules for public infrastructure? Nevertheless, congratulations to the European institutions. And thank you. Now, please get cracking on applying the same logic to other internet services, start by reforming the safe harbor-rules that allows for some players to actively run services while masquerading as neutral intermediaries (yes, I’m looking at you Uber and YouTube!). One more important step also remains regarding the internet access providers: make them apply the same tools and practices they use to maximize their profits but for societal priorities – fair competition, crime enforcement, public health etc. That would make not only a single digital market, but a better online world.