The European Union (EU) has dealt consumers and business travellers a blow after U-turning on the European Commission’s (EC) decision to eliminate mobile roaming charges.
A cornerstone of former EC vice-president Neelie Kroes’ policy agenda, mobile roaming charges were to be phased out later in 2015.
However, following an agreement by a council of the 27 EU member states, Brussels will now only commit to making changes to the current roaming regulations that, it claims, represent an “intermediate step towards phasing out roaming fees” from 30 July 2016.
The council’s stance sets out a new pricing mechanism which will reduce current roaming costs further, possibly allowing consumers to make and receive calls, send SMS messages and use data services at no cost within the terms of their domestic packages, with fees to be charged only after that allowance is used.
The council said the roaming fee could not, in any circumstances, be higher than the maximum wholesale rate that mobile network operators pay for using the networks of foreign operators. For calls received, the maximum surcharge will be the weighted average of maximum mobile termination rates across the EU.
Read more about roaming
- Vodafone moves to combat high roaming costs outside the EU, launching £5 a day WorldTraveller service in countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US
- Mobile network operator Three has expanded the number of countries included in its Feel At Home service, which allows British users of its network to call and text UK numbers and use mobile data abroad
- The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has signed an agreement with EE, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone to end roaming charges by 2016
At the same time, the EC will be asked to assess by mid-2018 what further measures can be taken, only with a view to phasing out charges.
The current maximum allowable tariffs for mobile roaming within the EU are – as of July 2014 – €0.19 per minute for outgoing voice calls, €0.05 per minute for incoming voice calls, €0.06 per outgoing SMS, and €0.20 per MB of downloaded data over 3G or 4G.
Potential blow for net neutrality
The decision to back away from ending mobile charges was not the only U-turn made by the EU, which also appears to have changed its mind over aspects of net neutrality.
In its statement, the council said it was committed to enshrining the principle of the right to access and distribute content freely online, and that internet service providers did not discriminate against certain types of traffic.
However, it added in its statement: “As regards to services other than those providing internet access, agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.”
This is in contrast to the US Federal Communications Commission, which flip-flopped in the opposite direction at the end of February 2015.
Storing up trouble?
The presidency – currently held by Latvia – will now negotiate the terms of the new regulations with the European Parliament on behalf of the EC over the coming months.
The legal act will need to be approved by both institutions before being enshrined in European law.
However, the negotiations will likely set up a clash between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the council.
Guy Verhofstadt, president of the liberal bloc in the European Parliament, told Reuters the decision was very disappointing.
“The only winners from it are national telecoms operators themselves,” he said.