The radio spectrum is about to become very crowded with increasingly large numbers of people using the web more intensively and that will have consequences for the future of the internet. Once sending a text over a telephone line constituted the cutting edge of technology, now people routinely use the web to stream films or conduct video conferences, which require more data to be sent at greater speed.
By 2017, 85% of the world's population will have 3G coverage, 50% will be covered by 4G, while smartphone subscriptions are expected to reach three billion. All of this has internet providers reconsidering the way they offer services. Should all data be treated equally or should some services come at a premium in order to guarantee speed?
Some 41% of Europeans experience difficulties watching a video on a mobile device and 37% via a fixed internet connection at home due to speed limitations or the blocking of content, according to a Eurobarometer survey published in February. And 24% of European internet users said their providers were preventing them from watching videos, listening to music or using other applications of their choice.
On 3 April the European Parliament will debate and vote on stricter rules to prevent telecom firms from degrading or blocking data flow to their competitors' services. For many years MEPs have advocated the principle of net neutrality, meaning that all data passing through a network should be treated equally, regardless of content, application, services, device, sender or receiver. The Parliament has consistently encouraged the European Commission to enshrine this principle in European legislation.
Pilar del Castillo, the Spansh MEP responsible for steering new rules for the telecom sector through Parliament, spoke out against these blocking practices. "The internet is open and should remain that way," she said in her report. "Openness means accessible for all, individuals and businesses, buyers and sellers, providers and consumers at competitive prices."
However, at the same time Ms del Castillo said that in addition to meeting the basic needs of users, companies should also be allowed to offer specialised services such as video-conferencing and certain health applications. The report approved by Parliament's industry committee included safeguards to ensure that these arrangements do not harm public services or the open nature of the internet. Specialised services would only be allowed if they do not slow down or interfere with the internet use of other users, while internet providers should not push people or content creators to buy these services.
Once the Parliament has approved these new rules for the telecom sector, they will still need to be approved by the member states before they can enter into force.
Photo copyright Solo (released under Creative Commons license)