Roaming charges: How will changes in mobile legislation affect business in Europe?

With mobile roaming charges on the way out across the European Union, what are the implications for businesses and business travellers?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Europe: CW Europe - January 2016

It has been a very long time coming, but right at the end of October 2015, in a vote overshadowed somewhat by the pressing issues surrounding the concurrent net neutrality regulations, the European Parliament finally waved through legislation that will put an end to mobile roaming charges in the 28 European Union (EU) member states on 15 June 2017.

For many years mobile roaming charges have been a long-standing bugbear for European consumers jetting off to the Mediterranean for their holidays in the sun. Barely a summer goes by without a new round of complaints about the phenomenon known as bill shock. This is when a traveller returns home to find a much higher than expected mobile bill – a problem that has got worse in recent years with the advent of 4G networks and data-heavy services.

But the problems associated with roaming charges are not confined to the consumer sphere. With hundreds of thousands of business travellers moving around the EU at any one time, who rely on being able to access emails, download reports, and increasingly use services such as video-conferencing from anywhere, bill shock can hit the enterprise world as well. So how will the EU’s legal changes impact them?

At face value, very little looks set to change, according to Dan Howdle, editor-in-chief of broadband and mobile comparison site, who starts by pointing out that most businesses that can afford to pay to fly their employees around Europe have been perfectly able to afford roaming costs up to now.

A little less stress, a little less cost

One meaningful differential will be around making life easier for the number-crunchers back at home. “No more will accounts departments have to brave the mire of business travel plans, add-ons, daily rates, data overages, usage blockages or indeed the myriad differences between EU and global roaming,” says Howdle.

“The same as it is at home is something we can all understand, and by that token, in its own way, it empowers business users with a little more freedom and a little less stress,” he adds.

If merely causing your accountants less stress is the aim of the game, then apparently it’s mission accomplished, but how about some actual statistics to show to the auditors?

Earlier in 2015, Wi-Fi hotspot aggregator iPass – which controls a global network with millions of access points and has a keen interest in the use of mobile devices when travelling internationally, although its preferred solution is Wi-Fi – produced a Business Traveller Connectivity Cost Index. This gave some insight into the financial cost of roaming to businesses today, as well as the potential savings tomorrow.

Its report claimed the average business traveller consumed 760MB of data every day, or around 4.5GB per month based on an assumed average of six days out of the user’s home country. Usage of Skype for Business, Webex-type services and enterprise virtual private networks (VPNs) were shown to be the biggest data sinks.

The new laws from the EU will of course reduce the likelihood of bill shock and the need for roaming top-ups, and will therefore have a dramatic impact on these costs for enterprises with employees travelling within Europe
Eldar Tuvey, Wandera

The report revealed that if opting to use a predominantly mobile connection while on a business trip, the average European travelling within the continent costs their company anywhere between €77 (£55) and €384 (£273) per day, or around €900 (£640) per month, even following the introduction of caps on roaming charges in 2012, and their reduction in 2014.

Nevertheless, iPass’s statistics make it very clear that the elimination of roaming charges represents a substantial cost-benefit for businesses.

Meanwhile, Wandera CEO Eldar Tuvey claims that as much as 10% of the average total cost of ownership of enterprise mobile devices in the UK is currently made up of roaming top-ups, and that 43% is made up of bill-shock events.

“The new laws from the EU will of course reduce the likelihood of bill shock and the need for roaming top-ups, and will therefore have a dramatic impact on these costs for enterprises with employees travelling within Europe,” he says.

At Blue Jeans Network, a provider of high-definition enterprise video services, the end of roaming charges is an opportunity for its business to really let rip in the EU, according to Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) general manager James Campanini.

Blue Jeans already sees more than a billion minutes of paid video flowing across its network, and hopes to see a substantial uptick following the end of roaming charges.

Ubiquitous network access across Europe will mean people are far more willing to use cloud services, says Campanini. It may even mean more people are tempted to use their own devices for working while abroad, so businesses will need to pay far more than just lip-service to mobile device security.

The bad news

However, even with the cost savings, it was not all good news. The iPass report also notes that even when data roaming disappears altogether, businesses will still have to buy extra data bolt-ons to meet the average demand of 4.5GB per month, and predicts that mobile network operators (MNOs) will increase their prices to cover the loss of roaming charges.

Tuvey at Wandera voices a similar concern, and actually went further, saying that enterprises may also see price rises on their domestic plans as operators try to counter their losses.

“This means UK-centric enterprises that do not typically suffer from roaming charges or international bill shock may actually suffer,” he says.

So, how much do operators stand to lose? According to Ravi Palepu, senior director of global telco solutions at network consultancy Virtusa, it could be as much as 2% of their total sales.

Besides price rises, he predicts established MNOs could very likely try to make changes in their organisational structures as well, maybe by moving customer service call centres to cheaper locations.

Campanini at Blue Jeans suggests there may be some negative impact for small businesses, such as cafes or independent hotels, which have set up Wi-Fi hotspots on their premises.

“This challenges the free Wi-Fi model. There’s no way I’ll sit down at an access point for Wi-Fi and sign up to receive emails for the rest of my life just to access it if there’s a 4G network,” he says.

The operator impact

One might be tempted to think European MNOs would be up in arms at the closing off of a lucrative revenue stream, but that is not necessarily so, says Jennifer Kyriakakis, founder and vice-president of marketing at software house Matrixx.

“Operators new roaming strategies should not simply be about satisfying regulators and wooing customers – it’s really about re-building the data experience and transforming a stream of revenue that is currently fraught with issues and only relevant to a small customer segment,” she says.

“With more subscribers using their phones abroad, operators can now look for different ways to better monetise data, delivering innovative services and products in real time. Operators could have a potentially much larger revenue stream that’s both predictable and sustainable, while simultaneously driving customer loyalty instead of driving them away.”

A unified European telecoms market, working from a single pricing approach and similar cost base, is better prepared to collaborate, invest and innovate
Joe Marsella, Ciena

Virtusa’s Palepu adds: “Subscribers currently using alternative methods, such as buying cheap SIM cards while travelling, would rely more on their current operator to provide better voice and data services, which will lead to improved average revenue per user.”

Joe Marsella, Emea chief technology officer (CTO) at network supplier Ciena, says cheaper and harmonised roaming is about much more than lowering costs for businesses, but will ultimately power consolidation and unification across the 28 EU member states, both in markets and platforms.

“A unified European telecoms market, working from a single pricing approach and similar cost base, is better prepared to collaborate, invest and innovate,” he says. “This will enable a new generation of innovative, new service offerings that will promote longer-term economic growth within member states and within the telecoms sector as a whole.”

This will mean more common technology, services and innovation that businesses all over the EU can enjoy, although it will also, he points out, require plenty of operator investment in backhaul network services to scale to meet greater traffic volumes.

Mikael Schachne, of network wholesaler BICS, which essentially acts as a go-between provider of connectivity for a number of European mobile carriers, is already planning to invest in the firm's infrastructure to accommodate the death of what he refers to as “silent roamers” – users who switch off data when abroad.

He claims BICS has already seen a rise in active roamers since the EU put in place caps on roaming charges, and anticipates this will continue.

“If the price goes down, usage goes up, which equals more requirement for connectivity,” says Schachne. “We expect to see more roaming traffic being carried on our network in the years to come.”

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