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Consumers suffer as operators block VoIP services

On Tuesday, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) published the findings of its investigation into the thorny issue of net neutrality in Europe with part of the report looking at how often mobile operators and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) restrict access to or block Over the Top services (OTT) such as Skype, Viber, and Rebtel.

The report revealed that up to 50 per cent of people in the EU are locked into broadband and mobile broadband contracts that permit operators to limit access to file-sharing or VoIP services. BEREC also said that restrictions are placed on services by 20 per cent of fixed-service broadband operators during peak times.

Neelie Kroes, EU Digital Agenda Commissioner, said "This report shows the need for more regulatory certainty and that there are enough problems to warrant strong and targeted action to safeguard consumers."

BEREC's findings will not surprise those with a keen eye on the telecommunications industry as traffic shaping and management is a regular practice amongst operators and ISPs. But it seems the same can't be said for consumers. This week Rebtel published an independent survey commissioned by market research agency Opinion Matters that found over half of UK smartphone users were unaware that operators engaged in throttling or blocking practices.

Furthermore, a staggering 71 per cent felt that their operators had not communicated the issue clearly to them so they did not understand how it related to their phone tariff. The survey also indicated that 18 million users would switch networks if operators continued to prohibit VoIP services.

Kroes vocalised this lack of public understanding when commenting on the findings of the BEREC report "Are customers really empowered to choose well? Do they realise what they are signing up for?

I didn't read all the pages in my mobile contract and I bet you didn't either. I believe we all need more transparent information." When it comes to net neutrality, self-regulation doesn't appear to work and if Kroes' comments and the findings of the report are anything to go by then telecoms and ISPs may see legislation at a European level as early as the end of this year.

However, as the industry hammers out the details of the regulation consumers must not lose out. There is a clearly a need for operators to spell out what types of services they block on what networks and on which tariffs. There needs to be less smoke and mirrors and more openness and transparency around this issue.