Austria goes against Router Freedom
The Austrian Regulatory Authority for Broadcasting and Telecommunications, RTR, has decided not to regulate the network operators with regard to Router Freedom, allowing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to impose their equipment on consumers. For RTR, routers configured in “bridge mode” is synonymous with terminal equipment freedom. The FSFE laments this decision as a missed opportunity for Net Neutrality in Austria.
In 2016, the Net Neutrality regulation established, for the first time in Europe, freedom of terminal equipment for internet connection. It means that, in theory, consumers would be able to choose and use their own routers and modems independently from those provided by the ISPs. However, the practical realisation of this right has not followed a linear process, but has been marked by several difficulties, including the 2018 reform of EU telecom law, the implementation of technical rules, and the resistance from national regulators to interfere in the activities of operators. While several countries such as Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and Belgium have decided on full regulatory protection of Router Freedom, other EU members have followed other paths, preferring to exclude fiber networks (as in Greece and Italy) or deciding completely against freedom of terminal equipment, as in Latvia, Denmark, and now Austria.
Consumer protection falls short
In November 2023, the Austrian telecom regulator RTR published a decision on the evaluation of Router Freedom and the position of the network termination point (NTP) (DE), a demarcation of the limits of the public and private networks. The regulator has concluded not to regulate Router Freedom due to some alleged factors, including the limited usage by end-users of private routers and the enhanced operational costs for network operators. RTR has also claimed that the mere fact that Austrian providers already offer end-users the possibility to connect their own routers to the ISP’s modem in “bridge mode” would constitute freedom of terminal equipment. This, as we explain below, is a contradiction in itself. Of particular concern is RTR’s statement affirming that there is currently insufficient evidence of significant restrictions on Router Freedom for a relevant proportion of users (page 3).
A lost opportunity for Net Neutrality
RTR’s position fails to capture the notion of Router Freedom as a fundamental aspect of Net Neutrality, as freedom of terminal equipment has a profound impact on how end-users access the Internet. Router Freedom is the hardware component of Net Neutrality, and its protection should be understood not only from the market perspective, but should embrace its nature as an essential element of the Open Internet.
Formally defining the position of the NTP at Point A would officially include the modem and router within the end-user premises, and the public network would begin from the plug on the wall. That would constitute complete freedom of terminal equipment. RTR’s decision instead only guarantees that end-users can connect their routers to ISPs’ modems in “bridge mode”. Since operators can require use of their modems inside end-users’ premises, the decision cannot be considered compliant with Router Freedom.
Early on in 2021, when Austria was in the process of implementing the reform of the telecom sector, the FSFE, together with the Austrian organisation epicenter.works, urged the Austrian government to safeguard Router Freedom in the newly adopted legislation. We warned back then that if the decision on Router Freedom were to be delegated to the national regulatory agency (RTR) this could lead to outcomes against consumer rights and interests.
In 2022, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives from industry and policy makers, to demonstrate why Router Freedom is important for market competition, device innovation, and sustainability. At the time, we urged RTR to seize the opportunity to establish Router Freedom in Austria by defining the NTP in a position favourable to consumer interests.
In May 2023, we sent to RTR our report on the Router Freedom survey, demonstrating how ISPs still hamper consumer freedom of choice, exercise lock-in over internet equipment, and promote proprietary devices, negatively affecting consumer welfare, security, privacy, and data protection. Although more than 13% of the participants were Austrians, the regulator has not provided feedback on this.
Besides, while other member states regulators have conducted open consultations and produced comprehensive reports and detailed studies regarding Router Freedom, RTR has not provided any relevant data, nor conducted consultation procedures where civil society stakeholders were broadly involved. This lack of transparency negatively affects the monitoring on Open Internet in the country.
The FSFE laments that RTR was not able to find a balance among business, investment considerations, and consumer protection, preferring to align themselves with telecom operators instead of taking a step towards Net Neutrality and Open Internet.
Aiming at the future: there will be room for improvement
As noted by RTR, the present decision is not definitive, and the regulator will re-evaluate this framework in the future. Neither deadlines nor a time schedule were provided, though. Although we regret the long period such regulatory decisions normally require, there will be still room for improvement, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation in Austria.
Zooming out, as an example, in a study conducted on behalf of the European Commission, Router Freedom was considered one of the priorities for the proper implementation of Net Neutrality in Europe. Regulators have to take utmost account of this freedom when designing their policies for the telecommunications sector. Besides, emerging issues regarding devices, optical fiber networks, and satellite connections are still under intense debate on different levels at the EU and member states. Aspects of sustainability of the telecom sector are also being discussed. All those elements have been monitored by the FSFE, and Router Freedom will be an important element for policy making.
The Router Freedom initiative
Router Freedom is the right that customers of any ISP are able to choose and use a private modem and router instead of equipment provided by the operator. Since 2013, the Free Software Foundation Europe has been successfully engaged with Router Freedom, promoting end-users’ freedom in many European countries. Join us and learn more about the several ways to get involved. Please consider becoming a FSFE donor; you help make possible our long-term engagement and professional commitment in defending people’s rights to control technology.