The European Commission is to introduce legislation to force mobile operators to reduce the charges they levy customers who use their mobile phones when abroad.
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The Commission said such roaming charges were too high and that mobile operators had failed to voluntarily bring down their prices, so it was forced to act.
The Commission said the price for a standard four-minute call has generally remained at the same high level across Europe since September 2005 and, in some cases, has even increased, despite warnings from the Commission to the industry that EU-wide regulation would be necessary if prices were not brought down.
“It is high time that the EU’s internal market delivered substantially lower communication charges for consumers and business people travelling abroad,” said information society and media commissioner Viviane Reding.
“I am therefore proposing that EU regulations should be used to eliminate all unjustified roaming charges. A mobile phone customer should not be charged a higher tariff just because they are travelling abroad,” she said.
“We strongly support commissioner Reding’s commitment to address this enduring problem”, said Kip Meek, chief policy partner at UK telecoms regulator Ofcom.
Meek is currently president of the European Regulators Group (ERG), the body which brings together the EU’s 25 national telecom regulators and which advises the Commission.
Said Meek, “The ERG is committed to working together with commissioner Reding to come up with a practical, proportionate and speedy mechanism for getting retail roaming prices down by a substantial margin.”
The Commission said prices for a four-minute roaming call still vary from as little as €0.20 (£0.14p) for a Finnish consumer calling home from Sweden to €13.05 for a four-minute call by a Maltese consumer in Latvia.
In some cases, roaming prices have even increased over the past six months. In the UK, one operator has increased the price for roaming from €3.45 to €4.92 when consumers call home across the EU. Lithuanian customers are charged for a four-minute call from France at between €4.41 and €12.08, said the Commission.
The Commission added that special roaming packages offered by some operators have not been widely taken up by consumers, since most of these tariffs are offered on an opt-in basis or may have an additional monthly charges attached to them.
Only in exceptional cases has progress been made, the Commission said. An operator in Belgium has introduced a flat rate for roaming, which has brought down the price from €7.20 to €4.40 for a call home while roaming in Cyprus.
And in Ireland, the Commission’s previous warning of possible regulatory measures on roaming was followed by the elimination by several operators of roaming charges for travellers to the UK.
The new EU regulations could eliminate all roaming charges for receiving a call when travelling abroad in the EU.
In addition, for calls made while travelling abroad in the EU, the new EU regulation could introduce the “home pricing” principle.
This could mean a mobile customer travelling abroad in the EU would always be charged only the prices that they are used to paying in their country of residence.
The Commission has now put all its proposals out to consultation until the end of April and is expected to table a law around June. Any law would require the approval of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The mobile industry’s GSM Association said laws on roaming charges were unnecessary as mobile operators were already reducing charges.
Analyst Ovum said regulations were currently necessary, but should be shelved once the mobile market had shown that pricing had been brought down to levels acceptable to regulators.
It is estimated that high-margin roaming charges can represent up to 15% of a mobile operator’s revenue.