Europe ready to hang up on mobile roaming fees by mid-June

The abolition of mobile roaming charges across the European Union by the middle of this year looks almost certain now, after the region’s executive body, parliament and representatives of the 28 Member States agreed a deal on wholesale charges.

The date for the start of what the EC is dubbing ‘roam-like-at-home’ is June 15. Although the European Parliament and the Council still need to formally approve today’s agreement via a vote. But that should be a formality given the accord now reached between the various players.

In statement commenting on today’s announcement, the European Commission’s VP for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, described the agreement as the “last piece of the puzzle”. “This was the last piece of the puzzle. As of 15 June, Europeans will be able to travel in the EU without roaming charges,” he said.

Agreements over wholesale charges (aka the prices mobile operators can charge each other for allowing other networks’ users to roam across their networks) had caused sticking points for the policy before. So it’s unsurprising that the agreement includes a gradually reducing wholesale cap for data — eventually shrinking to €2.5 per GB by 2022.

Regardless, this does not affect EU consumers’ roaming fees for data, which will still end come mid June.

The EU has been trying to end roaming charges for what feels like forever several years — setting out its intention to end the fees in a 2013 reform plan (called the Telecoms Single Market initiative), with the aim of boosting the region’s global competitiveness and fostering digital jobs by reducing market fragmentation.

And prior to that, as far back as 2007, it has been pushing to reduce the amount operators can charge for roaming as it moved towards a final phasing out.

One major sticking point for the policy has been operator concerns that it could be abused by so-called ‘permanent roamers’ — aka people taking out a cheaper mobile contract in one European country in order to use it all the time in another EU country, thereby bypassing more expensive tariffs in their home market.

The Commission notes today that it adopted rules on “fair use policy and sustainability” back in December — limiting how often home subscriptions can be used without roaming charges. So the end to roaming will only benefit periodic travelers, though it notes that cross-border commuters, for example, are covered.

The fair use policy will require a mobile user to be able to show “frequent and substantial presence on the territory of the Member State of the mobile operator,  like an employment relationship or following recurring courses at University”, according to an EC Fact Sheet.

The Fact Sheet further notes operators will have leeway to ask customers to provide “proof of residence or of such stable links to the Member State in question”.

Operators will also be able to apply what it dubs “fair, reasonable and proportionate control mechanisms based on objective indicators to detect the risks of abusive or anomalous use of ‘Roam like at Home’ beyond periodic travelling”.

“We have… made sure that operators can continue competing to provide the most attractive offers to their home markets,” said Ansip today.

The agreed wholesale caps are as follows:

  • 3.2 cents per minute of voice call, as of 15 June 2017
  • 1 cent per SMS, as of 15 June 2017
  • A step by step reduction over 5 years for data caps decreasing from €7.7 per GB (as of 15 June 2017) to €6 per GB (as of 1 January 2018), €4.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2019), €3.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2020), €3 per GB (as of 1 January 2021) and €2.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2022).

The EC notes that if consumers exceed their contract limits when roaming then any additional charges will not be higher than the wholesale roaming caps.

The Commission intends to carry out a review of the wholesale market by the end of 2019 to assess how the measures are working.

What about Brexit? UK mobile users should still be able to enjoy the benefits of reduced roaming fees across the EU in the short term — i.e. during the two-year Article 50 exit period for leaving the EU (due to be triggered by the UK Prime Minister by the end of March).

What happens to UK mobile users’ roaming fees in Europe after the UK has left the European Union remains to be seen.