The Germany Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) has told Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Deutschland that they may no longer offer their zero-rating tariffs, which have been deemed incompatible with net neutrality

Since 2015, the European Union has had legal protections in place supporting the concept of net neutrality, which guarantees users’ rights to access content on the internet without discrimination from the telecoms companies that operate the network. In short, net neutrality means that operators cannot restrict or throttle traffic to certain internet addresses or impose restrictions on certain types of traffic, with a few exceptions for legal and security reasons.

Since these rules have come into effect, numerous operators have fallen afoul of regulations, with Vodafone Deutschland and Deutsche Telekom notably coming under scrutiny for their zero-rated Vodafone Pass and StreamOn platforms, respectively. 

These zero-rated services offer customers access to certain internet content – in this case, music and video content from the operators’ partners – either for free or without contributing towards their data plans, allowing them to be accessed without limit. Since this concept, by its very nature, engenders making some traffic more accessible than others, it was always likely to bump heads with net neutrality legislation.  

It should be noted, however, that zero-rating services is not always done for commercial reasons; during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, numerous operators zero-rated healthcare information websites and other services, helping to make them more accessible for vulnerable consumers. 

Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom’s services first came into the regulatory firing line in 2018, when BNetzA said the companies were throttling data speeds for some users on particular tariffs and that the zero-rating was not applied when the user was roaming. At the time, BNetzA said that the operators could tweak their platforms to adhere to regulations, without banning them outright.

However, questions about the platforms’ compatibility with net neutrality principles remained, finally coming to a head in September last year when the European Court of Justice ruled the platforms violated both net neutrality and roaming regulations. 

“Such a commercial practice is contrary to the general obligation of equal treatment of traffic, without discrimination or interference, as required by the regulation on open internet access,” said the Court in a statement.

“Since those limitations on bandwidth, tethering or on use when roaming apply only on account of the activation of the ‘zero tariff’ option, which is contrary to the regulation on open internet access, they are also incompatible with EU law.”

Now, just over half a year later, the BNetzA has finally stepped in to enforce this court ruling, telling Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom to terminate existing customer contracts and discontinue these services by March 2023.

“We are ending the unequal treatment of data traffic associated with the zero-rating options,” said Klaus Müller, President of BNetzA. “We expect providers to now offer tariffs with higher data allowances or cheaper mobile flat-rate tariffs. Consumers will benefit from this.”

The regulator suggests that banning these services will be beneficial for the German mobile market, helping to accelerate trends towards tariffs with higher data volumes and cheaper mobile flat rates.

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