Europe passes last hurdle to end mobile roaming fees on June 15

The European Council yesterday adopted the legal act that limits how much mobile operators can charge each other — the final step in the multi-stage, multi-year process for the region’s lawmakers to agree an end to roaming charges for citizens. The ‘roam like at home’ policy will come into affect across the European Union from June 15.

A preliminary deal to end charges for EU citizens’ using their mobile device in another European country other than their own was agreed in June 2015.

This February final agreement was reached between the executive body of the EU, the European Commission, and the European parliament. The European Council vote was the last hurdle.

The body, which is made up of the heads of state of the EU’s 28 Member States, had previously blocked an earlier EC push to end roaming charges, in 2015 — voting to keep the fees until at least 2018 at that time. Following that setback, some changes were made to the measure to try to allay operators’ concerns, and a deal on wholesale price caps was also reached — to finally arrive at the current accord.

In a statement yesterday on behalf of the Council, Dr Emmanuel Mallia, the Maltese digital minister, said: “Today’s final vote in the Council clears the path for free roaming. When Europeans go on holiday this summer, they can enjoy the freedom of being able to stay in touch and use the Internet as if they were at home. The EU is making our lives easier in very practical ways.”

As well as the (currently) 28 EU Member States where roaming without paying surcharges will apply from June 15, the ‘roam like at home’ measure also apply in European Economic Area countries — Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — shortly after that date.

It’s part of a wider EU effort to establish a Digital Single Market (DSM) across the region by reducing national barriers to ecommerce. Other planks of this policy include an agreement to end geoblocks on travellers’ digital subscriptions secured earlier this year, and an in-train (but much criticized) digital copyright reform which may have a final text agreed by the end of the year.

Done roaming?

The European Commission first set out its intention to end mobile roaming fees in a 2013 reform plan, called the Telecoms Single Market initiative — a part of the DSM, so also aimed at boosting the region’s global competitiveness and fostering digital jobs by reducing market fragmentation.

But even as far back as 2006 European commissioners have been calling for operators to reduce the amount they charge consumers for roaming. So it’s been a long and pretty tortuous negotiation process to arrive at a deal.

The telcoms industry lobbied fiercely to keep the lucrative charges for as long as possible. Indeed, pressure from telcos led the Commission to rewrite its ‘roam like at home’ plan in fall last year to incorporate a ‘fair use’ policy to try to allay operators’ fears of so-called ‘permanent roamers’ (i.e. EU citizens taking advantage of lower tariffs in certain European countries to avoid paying higher domestic mobile tariffs). So, technically speaking, not all roaming fees are being abolished on June 15 — hence the Commission’s ‘roam like at home’ moniker.

An EC FAQ on the measures notes that operators will be able to detect possible abuses of the policy over a four-month period, and may contact a mobile user to ask them to clarify their country of residence within 14 days. If an EU mobile user continues to be abroad in the EU more than they are ‘at home’ capped roaming fees may then once again apply.

“The general rule is that as long as you spend more time at home than abroad or you use your mobile phone more at home than abroad you can roam at domestic prices when travelling anywhere in the EU,” it states.

There are also additional rules — for phone plans with unlimited data, which may result in roaming fees if you exceed the ‘roam like at home’ allowance because operators are not required to provide like-for-like unlimited data, but may just offer a “large volume” of data, depending on the price of the mobile bundle; and for pre-paid cards, which may have a volume limit for data applied to them, depending on the price per unit paid.

There is also criticism beyond these small print limits. The biggest concern has been that the measure will push up the price of standard mobile contracts — meaning mobile users would be paying more domestically to subsidize the cost of cheaper calls and data when they’re on holiday. (Indeed, some EU operators took early opportunistic action to raise prices — blaming the incoming measure.)

A core part of the process has therefore been for EU institutions to agree the wholesale price caps on how much telecoms operators can charge each other for using their networks for the cross-border roaming traffic to ensure their costs can come down as well as consumers’. Although operators also stand to lose revenue because they also can’t charge other carriers as much to use their networks. Hence the tricky negotiation process.

Yesterday the Council adopted the reform of EU wholesale prices — describing it as “a practical and legal prerequisite for the end of roaming as laid down in the roaming regulation from 2015”.

“New wholesale caps were needed to help ensure that operators are able to offer surcharge-free roaming to their customers without increasing prices at home,” it added.

The EU parliament agreed the wholesale roaming regulation earlier, on April 6. The new rules introduce caps on wholesales charges of €7.70 per gigabyte from this June, falling each January thereafter to just €2.50 per gigabyte from 2022. But it remains to be seen whether EU operators will generally be content with the impact of the new wholesale roaming regulations on their bottom lines — or whether they will raise domestic prices to top up any shortfall.

For UK citizens there is also the specific question of what Brexit will mean for their mobile roaming fees. Because once the country leaves the EU it will no longer be covered by the incoming roaming rules — allowing continental carriers to charge UK consumers, at least in theory, as much as they like to use their phones in the EU. Unless a comprehensive trade deal can be secured.

Any quick bilateral deal on UK-EU roaming has already been ruled out by the EC, according to the FT. So, for travelling Brits, everything hinges on the Brexit negotiations — and how quickly a trade deal materializes.

In terms of final stages for implementing ‘roam like at home’, the agreed text of the wholesale roaming regulation will be signed by the Council and the EU Parliament in mid-May and published in the EU Official Journal by the end of May — entering into force three days after publication, and in time for the June 15 deadline for it to come into force.