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One hundred years on: neutrality again the issue in plucky little Belgium

Neelie Kroes, the European information commissioner, is pushing a rather blunt (and by now tattered) package of European telecoms market reform which essentially amounts to a bit of taking away from the big telco lobby - roaming charges (which were on their last legs anyway) slashed, Internet blocking and throttling banished, plus a bit of comsumer friendly change-your-ISP-easily regulation.

All in return for general support for consolidation (with the emphasis on the construction of pan-European groups, whereas the real goal for telcos is in-country consolidation and attenuated competition), spectrum harmonisation (difficult to argue with but essentially favouring big telco group consolidation).

And the big one disguised as a little one: a small but deadly spanner in the machinery of the European internet market by allowing the big near-monopoly telcos to offer so-called ‘specialised’ services which could be prioritised over competing internet services and funded (where applicable) by upstream content providers.

Right from the outset Kroes hid this ‘small detail’ under the gabble of net neutrality rhetoric. The Kroes package would see the end of throttling and blocking and all such nasty forms of discrimination, it was proclaimed endlessly.

The fact was, however, that the specialised services (if introduced and expanded) could potentially be used to institute blocking and throttling on an industrial, strategic scale so that telco specialised services would always have the advantage and specific blocking and throttling (as practiced against Skype in the past, for instance) would hardly be needed. If introduced alongside Internet bandwidth caps, for instance, the specialised services might put dominant telco/ISPs in full control of the fast-expanding online video market - a place, to be fair, they were always open about wanting to be.

The subtext was and is: European telcos get a little rough, quite a lot of smooth and in return will invest in European telecoms infrastructure, with Neelie proclaimed the architect of a truly unified and fit-for-purpose telecoms industry.

As the months whisked by this subterfuge became more obvious to more onlookers and rising poliltical pressure saw the specialised services offer in the legislation hedged around by legal limits and stipulations which weakened them as a strategic tool. But those specialised services are still hanging in there with all the potential trapdoors and escape hatches net neutrality advocates were worried about yet to be rubbed out.

Tomorrow will likely see final ammendments offered and voted on… or delayed. We will report back.

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