1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Net neutrality

May 26, 2011

Under a new Dutch telecommunications bill, ISPs and mobile providers would be barred from limiting heavy-bandwidth applications, or charging users extra to use online voice applications like Skype.

A smartphone user
The Dutch bill would allow for more Internet telephony

Blocking or charging users for services like Skype has been standard practice for some cellular providers - but a new amendment to the Dutch telecommunications act is set to pull the plug on those policies.

The country's Minister for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Maxime Verhagen, announced the changes on Tuesday in the Dutch House of Representatives. If the bill passes, which it is expected to, the Netherlands would become the first country in Europe and the second in the world (after Chile) to enshrine the concept of net neutrality in law.

The net neutrality amendment, for example, would ensure that consumers do not have to pay extra to use certain online applications - and most controversially, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technologies when on mobile phone networks.

The concept of net neutrality dictates that all data on the Internet, regardless of whether or not it is an e-mail, a video game, or a voice call, should be treated equally by Internet providers, telecom firms, and mobile phone companies. Such companies have historically been resistant to ensuring net neutrality, as many of them say that they need to be able to "throttle" or "shape" traffic accordingly, particularly as online video and VoIP applications like Skype skyrocket.

"The government believes a tax on certain services such as Skype or WhatsApp go too far," a press release posted on the ministry's website said.

Some telecoms have placed restrictions on such programs, in hopes of safeguarding revenues derived from traditional voice and texting packages.

Maxime Verhagen, Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation
Economic Affairs Minister Maxime Verhagen endorsed the new net neutrality rulesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Netherlands: digital pioneer?

Verhagen is set to hold consultations with the European Union to ensure that the amendment does not interfere with EU regulations.

So far there are no details available on the substance of those talks, or on how the Dutch government plans to enforce the new legislation, ministry spokesman Edwin van Scherrenburg told Deutsche Welle in an e-mail.

"The minister will get in touch with Brussels/the EU, since EU law is very important in this field," he wrote.

Net neutrality has also been a key issue for the European Union in 2011. On Wednesday, new EU telecoms rules on transparency and service quality took effect.

In addition, the European Commission announced in April that it would publish the results of an investigation into whether companies engaged in "blocking or throttling (of) certain types of traffic" by the end of the year – saying evidence of any barriers would prompt the EU to mull tougher net neutrality safeguards.

A man making a call enabled by VoIP
VoIP technologies have changed the way telecoms are doing businessImage: AP

Changing business models

The amendment came in response to a motion on net neutrality put forth by Bruno Braakhuis, a member of the House representing the Green Party (GroenLinks). Braakhuis told Deutsche Welle that the legislation would be handed over to parliamentary support staff on Thursday and be brought into voting next week.

A majority of lawmakers have already announced their support for the changes. The amendment would prevent mobile Internet operators from selectively blocking, charging for or slowing certain applications.

"That would really be a violation of net neutrality, and it would also open the way for common Internet service providers to do the same thing," Braakhuis told Deutsche Welle.

He said online mobile operators must reconfigure the way they make their money - adding that charging extra for faster Internet speed, more bandwidth or higher data volumes could prove a viable profit alternative.

"If you want to have YouTube on your phone, you can try the low bandwidth, but you will be pretty frustrated," Braakhuis quipped.

The mobile data revolution

The changes stand to alter how telecommunications companies approach fees for data access and services.

A spokesman for KPN, which has announced plans to roll out new tariffs this summer, said the company will be watching the amendment closely.

"We will of course take into consideration what the minister has said," Stefan Simons, a KPN press officer, told Deutsche Welle in an interview.

Simons acknowledged the need for KPN to switch to new fee structures focusing on digital, not analog technologies.

"Mobile data is really picking up in the Netherlands, so that's why we need to do this," he said.

The company highlighted the phenomenon in KPN's report on its first-quarter results for 2011, noting the growing popularity of smartphone applications that allow users to bypass traditional cellular communications in favor of online options.

"The usage of these 'apps' lead to decreasing SMS and voice usage, resulting in lower service revenues," the report stated, adding that the company's current approaches "are not sufficiently able to monetize on the data usage growth."

The company's future strategy includes plans to move toward a "data-centric portfolio" that varies based on speed and service quality.

An SMS message on a cellular phone
Some users are opting for online instant messaging apps over traditional text messagesImage: picture alliance/chromorange

A model for Europe?

Europe is also becoming more data-centric as a whole. Cisco estimates that the number of mobile-only Internet users in western Europe will nearly double in 2011 compared to 2010, and growth is also expected in central and eastern Europe.

Globally, Cisco forecasts that global mobile data traffic for VoIP applications will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 42 percent from 2010 through 2015.

However, some Internet activists are skeptical about whether net neutrality legislation similar to what has been proposed in the Netherlands could be adopted on an EU-wide level.

"As a whole, the European Union is rapidly developing a framework where such an approach would be politically impossible," said Joe McNamee, the head of European Digital Rights, in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle.

As recently as April, the EU has called for an expansion of powers for the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive, which would broaden surveillance powers at the ISP level as a way to combat digital piracy.

"The more the Commission applauds these generally useless PR-driven initiatives now, the more politically impossible it will be for them to prevent overtly commercially-driven interferences in traffic in the future," he added.

Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Cyrus Farivar