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The European Network Usage Fees proposal is about much more than a fight between Big Tech and Big European telcos


13 min read

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There’s an important debate happening in Europe that could affect the future of the Internet. The European Commission is considering new rules for how networks connect to each other on the Internet. It’s considering proposals that – no hyperbole – will slow the Internet for consumers and are dangerous for the Internet.

The large incumbent telcos are complaining loudly to anyone who wants to listen that they aren’t being adequately compensated for the capital investments they’re making. These telcos are a set of previously regulated monopolies who still constitute the largest telcos by revenue in Europe in today's competitive market. They say traffic volumes, largely due to video streaming, are growing rapidly, implying they need to make capital investments to keep up. And they call for new charges on big US tech companies: a “fair share” contribution that those networks should make to European Internet infrastructure investment.

In response to this campaign, in February the European Commission released a set of recommended actions and proposals “aimed to make Gigabit connectivity available to all citizens and businesses across the EU by 2030.” The Commission goes on to say that “Reliable, fast and secure connectivity is a must for everybody and everywhere in the Union, including in rural and remote areas.” While this goal is certainly the right one, our agreement with the European Commission’s approach, unfortunately, ends right there. A close reading of the Commission’s exploratory consultation that accompanies the Gigabit connectivity proposals shows that the ultimate goal is to intervene in the market for how networks interconnect, with the intention to extract fees from large tech companies and funnel them to large incumbent telcos.

This debate has been characterised as a fight between Big Tech and Big European Telco. But it’s about much more than that. Contrary to its intent, these proposals would give the biggest technology companies preferred access to the largest European ISPs. European consumers and small businesses, when accessing anything on the Internet outside Big Tech (Netflix, Google, Meta, Amazon, etc), would get the slow lane. Below we’ll explain why Cloudflare, although we are not currently targeted for extra fees, still feels strongly that these fees are dangerous for the Internet:

  • Network usage fees would create fast lanes for Big Tech content, and slow lanes for everything else, slowing the Internet for European consumers;
  • Small businesses, Internet startups, and consumers are the beneficiaries of Europe’s low wholesale bandwidth prices. Regulatory intervention in this market would lead to higher prices that would be passed onto SMEs and consumers;
  • The Internet works best – fastest and most reliably – when networks connect freely and frequently, bringing content and service as close to consumers as possible. Network usage fees artificially disincentivize efforts to bring content close to users, making the Internet experience worse for consumers.

Why network interconnection matters

Understanding why the debate in Europe matters for the future of the Internet requires understanding how Internet traffic gets to end users, as well as the steps that can be taken to improve Internet performance.

At Cloudflare, we know a lot about this. According to Hurricane Electric, Cloudflare connects with other networks at 287 Internet exchange points (IXPs), the second most of any network on the planet. And we’re directly connected to other networks on the Internet in more than 285 cities in over 100 countries. So when we see a proposal to change how networks interconnect, we take notice. What the European Commission is considering might appear to be targeting the direct relationship between telcos and large tech companies, but we know it will have much broader effects.

There are different ways in which networks exchange data on the Internet. In some cases, networks connect directly to exchange data between users of each network. This is called peering. Cloudflare has an open peering policy; we’ll peer with any other network. Peering is one hop between networks – it’s the gold standard. Fewer hops from start to end generally means faster and more reliable data delivery. We peer with more than 12,000 networks around the world on a settlement-free basis, which means neither network pays the other to send traffic. This settlement-free peering is one of the aspects of Cloudflare’s business that allows us to offer a free version of our services to millions of users globally, permitting individuals and small businesses to have websites that load quickly and efficiently and are better protected from cyberattacks. We’ll talk more about the benefits of settlement-free peering below.

Figure 1: Traffic takes one of three paths between an end-user’s ISP and the content or service they are trying to access. Traffic could go over direct peering which is 1:1 between the ISP and the content or service provider; it could go through IX Peering which is a many:many connection between networks; or it could go via a transit provider, which is a network that gets compensated for delivering traffic anywhere on the Internet.

When networks don’t connect directly, they might pay a third-party IP transit network to deliver traffic on their behalf. No network is connected to every other network on the Internet, so transit networks play an important role making sure any network can reach any other network. They’re compensated for doing so; generally a network will pay their transit provider based on how much traffic they ask the transit provider to deliver. Cloudflare is connected to more than 12,000 other networks, but there are over 100,000 Autonomous Systems (networks) on the Internet, so we use transit networks to reach the “long tail”. For example, the Cloudflare network (AS 13335) provides the website to any network that requests it. If a user of a small ISP with whom Cloudflare doesn’t have direct connections requests from their browser, it’s likely that their ISP will use a transit provider to send that request to Cloudflare. Then Cloudflare would respond to the request, sending the website content back to the user via a transit provider.

In Europe, transit providers play a critical role because many of the largest incumbent telcos won’t do settlement-free direct peering connections. Therefore, many European consumers that use large incumbent telcos for their Internet service interact with Cloudflare’s services through third party transit networks. It isn’t the gold standard of network interconnection (which is peering, and would be faster and more reliable) but it works well enough most of the time.

Cloudflare would of course be happy to directly connect with EU telcos because we have an open peering policy. As we’ll show, the performance and reliability improvement for their subscribers and our customers’ content and services would significantly improve. And if the telcos offered us transit – the ability to send traffic to their network and onwards to the Internet – at market rates, we would consider use of that service as part of competitive supplier selection. While it’s unfortunate that incumbent telcos haven’t offered services at market-competitive prices, overall the interconnection market in Europe – indeed the Internet itself – currently works well. Others agree. BEREC, the body of European telecommunications regulators, wrote recently in a preliminary assessment:

BEREC's experience shows that the internet has proven its ability to cope with increasing traffic volumes, changes in demand patterns, technology, business models, as well as in the (relative) market power between market players. These developments are reflected in the IP interconnection mechanisms governing the internet which evolved without a need for regulatory intervention. The internet’s ability to self-adapt has been and still is essential for its success and its innovative capability.

There is a competitive market for IP transit. According to market analysis firm Telegeography’s State of the Network 2023 report, “The lowest [prices on offer for] 100 GigE [IP transit services in Europe] were $0.06 per Mbps per month.” These prices are consistent with what Cloudflare sees in the market. In our view, the Commission should be proud of the effective competition in this market, and it should protect it. These prices are comparable to IP transit prices in the United States and signal, overall, a healthy Internet ecosystem. Competitive wholesale bandwidth prices (transit prices) mean it is easier for small independent telcos to enter the market, and lower prices for all types of Internet applications and services. In our view, regulatory intervention in this well-functioning market has significant down-side risks.

Large incumbent telcos are seeking regulatory intervention in part because they are not willing to accept the fair market prices for transit. Very Large Telcos and Content and Application Providers (CAPs) – the term the European Commission uses for networks that have the content and services consumers want to see – negotiate freely for transit and peering. In our experience, large incumbent telcos ask for paid peering fees that are many multiples of what a CAP could pay to transit networks for a similar service. At the prices offered, many networks – including Cloudflare – continue to use transit providers instead of paying incumbent telcos for peering. Telcos are trying to use regulation to force CAPs into these relationships at artificially high prices.

If the Commission’s proposal is adopted, the price for interconnection in Europe would likely be set by this regulation, not the market. Once there’s a price for interconnection between CAPs and telcos, whether that price is found via negotiation, or more likely arbitrators set the price, that is likely to become the de facto price for all interconnection. After all, if telcos can achieve artificially high prices from the largest CAPs, why would they accept much lower rates from any other network – including transits – to connect with them? Instead of falling wholesale prices spurring Internet innovation as is happening now in Europe and the United States, rising wholesale prices will be passed onto small businesses and consumers.

Network usage fees would give Big Tech a fast lane, at the expense of consumers and smaller service providers

If network fees become a reality, the current Internet experience for users in Europe will deteriorate. Notwithstanding existing net neutrality regulations, we already see large telcos relegate content from transit providers to more congested connections. If the biggest CAPs pay for interconnection, consumer traffic to other networks will be relegated to a slow and/or congested lane. Networks that aren’t paying would still use transit providers to reach the large incumbent telcos, but those transit links would be second class citizens to the paid traffic. Existing transit links will become (more) slow and congested. By targeting only the largest CAPs, a proposal based on network fees would perversely, and contrary to intent, cement those CAPs’ position at the top by improving the consumer experience for those networks at the expense of all others. By mandating that the CAPs pay the large incumbent telcos for peering, the European Commission would therefore be facilitating discrimination against services using smaller networks and organisations that cannot match the resources of the large CAPs.

Indeed, we already see evidence that some of the large incumbent telcos treat transit networks as second-class citizens when it comes to Internet traffic. In November 2022, HWSW, a Hungarian tech news site, reported on recurring Internet problems for users of Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, because of congestion between Deutsche Telekom and its transit networks:

Network problem that exists during the fairly well-defined period, mostly between 4 p.m. and midnight Hungarian time, … due to congestion in the connection (Level3) between Deutsche Telekom, the parent company that operates Magyar Telekom's international peering routes, and Cloudflare, therefore it does not only affect Hungarian subscribers, but occurs to a greater or lesser extent at all DT subsidiaries that, like Magyar Telekom, are linked to the parent company. (translated by Google Translate)

Going back many years, large telcos have demonstrated that traffic reaching them through transit networks is not a high priority to maintain quality. In 2015, Cogent, a transit provider, sued Deutsche Telekom over interconnection, writing, “Deutsche Telekom has interfered with the free flow of internet traffic between Cogent customers and Deutsche Telekom customers by refusing to increase the capacity of the interconnection ports that allow the exchange of traffic”.

Beyond the effect on consumers, the implementation of Network Usage Fees would seem to violate the European Union’s Open Internet Regulation, sometimes referred to as the net neutrality provision. Article 3(3) of the Open Internet Regulation states:

Providers of internet access services shall treat all traffic equally, when providing internet access services, without discrimination, restriction or interference, and irrespective of the sender and receiver, the content accessed or distributed, the applications or services used or provided, or the terminal equipment used. (emphasis added)

Fees from certain sources of content in exchange for private paths between the CAP and large incumbent telcos would seem to be a plain-language violation of this provision.

Network usage fees would endanger the benefits of Settlement-Free Peering

Let’s now talk about the ecosystem that leads to a thriving Internet. We first talked about transit, now we’ll move on to peering, which is quietly central to how the Internet works. “Peering” is the practice of two networks directly interconnecting (they could be backbones, CDNs, mobile networks or broadband telcos to exchange traffic. Almost always, networks peer without any payments (“settlement-free”) in recognition of the performance benefits and resiliency we’re about to discuss. A recent survey of over 10,000 ISPs shows that 99.99% of their exchanged traffic is on settlement-free terms. The Internet works best when these peering arrangements happen freely and frequently.

These types of peering arrangements and network interconnection also significantly improve latency for the end-user of services delivered via the Internet. The speed of an Internet connection depends more on latency (the time it takes for a consumer to request data and receive the response) than on bandwidth (the maximum amount of data that is flowing at any one time over a connection). Latency is critical to many Internet use-cases. A recent technical paper used the example of a mapping application that responds to user scrolling. The application wouldn’t need to pre-load unnecessary data if it can quickly get a small amount of data in response to a user swiping in a certain direction.

In recognition of the myriad benefits, settlement-free peering between CDNs and terminating ISPs is the global norm in the industry. Most networks understand that through settlement-free peering, (1) customers get the best experience through local traffic delivery, (2) networks have increased resilience through multiple traffic paths, and (3) data is exchanged locally instead of backhauled and aggregated in larger volumes at regional Internet hubs. By contrast, paid peering is rare, and is usually employed by networks that operate in markets without robust competition. Unfortunately, when an incumbent telco achieves a dominant market position or has no significant competition, they may be less concerned about the performance penalty they impose on their own users by refusing to peer directly.

As an example, consider the map in Figure 2. This map shows the situation in Germany, where most traffic is exchanged via transit providers at the Internet hub in Frankfurt. Consumers are losing in this situation for two reasons: First, the farther they are from Frankfurt, the higher latency they will experience for Cloudflare services. For customers in northeast Germany, for example, the distance from Cloudflare’s servers in Frankfurt means they will experience nearly double the latency of consumers closer to Cloudflare geographically. Second, the reliance on a small number of transit providers exposes their traffic to congestion and reliability risks. The remedy is obvious: if large telcos would interconnect (“peer”) with Cloudflare in all five cities where Cloudflare has points of presence, every consumer, regardless of where they are in Germany, would have the same excellent Internet experience.

We’ve shown that local settlement-free interconnection benefits consumers by improving the speed of their Internet experience, but local interconnection also reduces the amount of traffic that aggregates at regional Internet hubs. If a telco interconnects with a large video provider in a single regional hub, the telco needs to carry their subscribers’ request for content through their network to the hub. Data will be exchanged at the hub, then the telco needs to carry the data back through their “backbone” network to the subscriber. (While this situation can result in large traffic volumes, modern networks can easily expand the capacity between themselves at almost no cost by adding additional port capacity. The fibre-optic cable capacity in this “backbone” part of the Internet is not constrained.)

Figure 3. A hypothetical example where a telco only interconnects with a video provider at a regional Internet hub, showing how traffic aggregates at the interconnection point.

Local settlement-free peering is one way to reduce the traffic across those interconnection points. Another way is to use embedded caches, which are offered by most CDNs, including Cloudflare. In this scenario, a CDN sends hardware to the telco, which installs it in their network at local aggregation points that are private to the telco. When their subscriber requests data from the CDN, the telco can find that content at a local infrastructure point and send it back to the subscriber. The data doesn’t need to aggregate on backhaul links, or ever reach a regional Internet hub. This approach is common. Cloudflare has hundreds of these deployments with telcos globally.

Figure 4. A hypothetical example where a telco has deployed embedded caches from a video provider, removing the backhaul and aggregation of traffic across Internet exchange points

Conclusion: make your views known to the European Commission!

In conclusion, it’s our view that despite the unwillingness of many large European incumbents to peer on a settlement-free basis, the IP interconnection market is healthy, which benefits European consumers. We believe regulatory intervention that forces content and application providers into paid peering agreements would have the effect of relegating all other traffic to a slow, congested lane. Further, we fear this intervention will do nothing to meet Europe’s Digital Decade goals, and instead will make the Internet experience worse for consumers and small businesses.

There are many more companies, NGOs and politicians that have raised concerns about the impact of introducing network usage fees in Europe. A number of stakeholders have spoken out already about the dangers of regulating the Internet interconnection system; from digital rights groups to the Internet Society, European Video on Demand providers and commercial broadcasters, Internet Exchanges and mobile operators to several European governments and Members of the European Parliament.

If you agree that major intervention in how networks interconnect in Europe is unnecessary, and even harmful, consider reading more about the European Commission’s consultation. While the consultation itself may look intimidating, anyone can submit a narrative response (deadline: 19 May). Consider telling the European Commission that their goals of ubiquitous connectivity are the right ones but that the approach they are considering is going into the wrong direction.

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Petra Arts|@petra_arts
Mike Conlow|@mikeconlow

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