An operator-led industry body has criticised net neutrality guidelines released this week by European regulators group BEREC, arguing they will restrict their freedom to provide services.

Because national telecoms regulators will be the gatekeeper of the European Union’s net neutrality law, it cannot come into force until BEREC approves detailed guidance on how it should be applied.

The European Parliament voted in favour of treating all network traffic equally last October.

After months of discussions, including with the telecoms sector, content providers and civil society representatives, BEREC released its draft guidance on Wednesday.

As expected, the draft guidance is complex and detailed, but some critical elements of the proposals confirm that telcos will be barred from offering ‘zero rated’ services for free once a user consumes a data allowance.

The draft guidance also allows regulators to stop such zero rating if a free service could prevent other services being accessed by users and hence harm freedom of expression.

The guidance says:  “A zero-rating offer where all applications are blocked (or slowed down) once the data cap is reached except for the zero-rated application(s) would infringe [the regulation]…”

It explains that a ‘zero price’ and lack of cap on a favoured music service, for instance, “creates an economic incentive to use that music application instead of competing ones”.

The effects of such a practice applied to a specific application are more likely to “undermine the essence of the end-users’ rights” or lead to circumstances where “end-users’ choice is materially reduced in practice” than when it is applied to an entire category of applications.”

Further, the draft guidance prevents operators from slowing certain internet traffic to free up bandwidth to speed up more favoured lucrative services.

Such restrictions have not found favour with the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), which represents 41 telcos across the continent.

It released a statement that noted “a restrictive interpretation of traffic management rules would hamper…telcos’ ability to meet network requirements in a 5G-society.”

Telcos need the ability to supply the necessary bandwidth so that new services work well, ETNO added.

“Quality, latency and reliability are essential to the delivery of new services and connected products,” it said.

It argued that the final guidelines should not restrict the ability of telcos “to differentiate consumer offers and provide zero-rated services,” which would deny consumer special offers and create legal uncertainty over whether the regulation will be applied consistently by regulators.

However, net neutrality campaigners will be pushing BEREC to maintain a firm, or even tougher, line on special treatment for favoured internet services.

The Access Now group, for instance, has called on the regulator’s group to “avoid establishing fast lanes” to enable “so-called specialised services”.

It wants BEREC to clarify rules on zero rating, “particularly the relationship between those services and user’s freedom to receive and impart information protected under the regulation.”

BEREC hopes to issue formal guidelines for national regulators by 30 August.

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