Limiting Data Use in Germany

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BERLIN -- The debate over "network neutrality," the principle that all bits of digital information are created equal, has come home in a real way for millions of Germans.

Deutsche Telekom, the former monopoly that controls 60 percent of broadband Internet connections in the country, said April 22 that it would impose hard-and-fast download limits on all customers of its home Internet service, starting in 2016.

Deutsche Telekom said that soaring data traffic, which is expected to quadruple by 2016, would force it to impose limits that had been applied only to mobile users.

Under a new pricing plan, Deutsche Telekom would slow landline Internet customers to a rate of 384 kilobits a second, once the download limit is reached, which for many consumers would be at 75 gigabytes of downloads per month -- enough to send more than 15,000 e-mails or download and watch 100 movies. The operator said it planned to sell upgrades that would let consumers increase their limits.

The Deutsche Telekom proposal is controversial not only because it would impose the nation's first comprehensive download limits on landline broadband service; Deutsche Telekom also plans to exempt from the limits the traffic generated by its own Internet television service, Entertain. At the same time, the operator does not plan to exempt the traffic of rival services, like YouTube, from Google; iTunes, from Apple; or Facebook.

"With Entertain, customers are paying for television, so we will make sure they aren't sitting in front of a black screen," said Michael Hagspihl, the Deutsche Telekom head of marketing.

In Germany, the announcement has provoked scrutiny. The country's telecom regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, said it would review the new tariff structure for potential violations of network neutrality principles, which generally hold that the government and Internet service providers should not discriminate or charge differently, based on the customer or the type of content.

Additionally, in the European Union, operators are barred from selectively blocking services of Web-based rivals for financial gain.

The German economics minister, Philipp Rösler, said his agency would scrutinize the legality of Deutsche Telekom's plans. So did the German consumer protection minister, Ilse Aigner.

A group representing small and midsize businesses said the new broadband tariffs would lead to significant price increases for small businesses and the self-employed, who typically spend more time than most consumers surfing the Web.

"The massive restrictions planned by the leading provider of Internet in Germany would not only significantly affect consumers but especially freelancers and the self-employed, who would be thrown back to the 1990s in terms of Internet speeds," said Oliver Grün, the president of Bundesverband IT Mittelstand, which represents 800 small and midsize businesses.

Deutsche Telekom has said that most German consumers average 20 gigabytes of data downloads a month and will not be affected by the new limits.

But consumer groups and government overseers are wary. In Germany, two rivals, 1&1, a reseller of Deutsche Telekom broadband service, and Kabel Deutschland, the country's biggest cable television operator, have both introduced download limits on their Internet services, but only on the least expensive monthly packages.

Deutsche Telekom has so far not said what its new broadband fees will be. Christian Fronczak, a spokesman for Ms. Aigner, said the consumer protection agency was worried that Deutsche Telekom would create a class system in which surfing would be available only to those consumers who could afford it.

Philipp Blank, a Deutsche Telekom spokesman, said the operator did not plan to release the fees it intended to charge for broadband upgrades until the limits were implemented in 2016.

"It is very difficult in this dynamic industry to say where prices will be in 2016," Mr. Blank said by telephone.

But the company's current rates at its T-Mobile Germany wireless subsidiary, where mobile phone customers can double their monthly download allowances by purchasing an upgrade for €5, or $6.50, should serve as "an orientation point" for where the landline fees might eventually be set, Mr. Blank said.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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