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Will Brexit really bring the return of mobile roaming charges?

As Theresa May commits to quitting the EU’s digital single market alongside Brexit, heralding the potential reintroduction of mobile roaming charges, are business travellers and holidaymakers doomed to a return to the bad old days?

Although the issue of mobile roaming charges did not feature on the 23 June 2016 referendum ballot that saw the UK vote by a slim margin to leave the European Union (EU), the announcement by prime minister Theresa May that the UK will also be leaving the digital single market has caused a sharp intake of breath among frequent travellers to mainland Europe.

And for good reason. Following years of back and forth around the various issues and stumbling blocks needed to make EU-wide consensus on abolishing mobile roaming charges a reality, the question was finally put to bed back in 2015, when Brussels committed to phase out roaming tariffs within a two-year timeframe. 

Despite rumblings of discontent from some mobile network operators (MNOs), the fateful day – 15 June 2017 – came and went. Since then, Brits travelling in both the EU and the wider European Economic Area (EEA) – which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – have been able to use voice and data services in the same way they would in the UK in spite of the UK government having already triggered the Article 50 process.

May’s bombshell?

However, in a speech delivered last week, intended to bring some clarity to the fraught Brexit negotiations, May said: “The UK will not be part of the EU’s digital single market, which will continue to develop after our withdrawal from the EU.

“This is a fast-evolving, innovative sector, in which the UK is a world leader. So it will be particularly important to have domestic flexibility, to ensure the regulatory environment can always respond nimbly and ambitiously to new developments.”

This means that because the abolition of mobile roaming charges was one of the key objectives of the digital single market, the UK’s exit from said arrangement means the issue is once again up in the air, with no real clarity on whether or not British travellers to Europe after Brexit will once again either have to buy expensive mobile broadband add-ons, curtail their data use, or face the return of the dreaded ‘bill shock’.

“The government is committed to securing the best deal for British consumers. Arrangements on mobile roaming would be subject to any negotiations; however, a future partnership between the UK and EU is clearly in the interests of both sides,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

MNOs look to maintain status quo

The good news for travellers is that among the UK’s four largest operators, there appears at the time of writing to be little appetite to reinstate roaming charges. Both Three and Vodafone had previously committed not to reintroduce roaming tariffs, and in a statement sent to Computer Weekly, a Vodafone spokesperson appeared to reconfirm this, although they also cautioned that the impact of Brexit on roaming regulation would not be known for some time.

“It’s too soon to assess the implications of Brexit on roaming regulation. However, we expect competition will continue to drive good value for customers. We currently have no plans to change our roaming charges,” the spokesperson said.

Three CEO Dave Dyson went on the record to state: “My ambition is to free our customers and offer 100% roaming worldwide at no extra cost and we will continue to abolish unfair roaming charges until we achieve this.

“We’re passionate about improving our customers’ experience when travelling abroad, so they can stay connected and use their phones just as they do at home. To reassure our customers, we have also committed to maintain the availability of roaming in the EU at no additional cost following Brexit.”

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EE took a similar line. “EE customers enjoy great value products and controls offering inclusive roaming in Europe and beyond, and we don’t have any plans to change these offers,” said a spokesperson.

“We are working closely with government on this and hope they will put consumers at the top of their agenda in the Brexit negotiations to help ensure that UK operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers.”

An O2 spokesperson added: “We’re committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel overseas. We currently have no plans to change our roaming services across Europe. We’re engaged with the government with regards to what may happen once the UK officially leaves the EU.”

Consumer pressure

The key factor that may affect the ultimate decisions of the UK’s MNOs with regard to mobile roaming charges could be consumer pressure.

All MNOs exist in a competitive market. By the end of March 2019, when the two-year Brexit process is supposed to end, travellers will have had the ability to roam freely around the EU for over 18 months.

By that point, people who travel to the continent will have enjoyed the benefits of worry-free roaming and will already be used to the changes. Their continuation, or not, will have a significant impact on both future expectations and behaviour.

Essentially, woe betide the operator that tries to unilaterally reintroduce roaming charges, even though not to do so would be a clear financial risk to them. Mikaël Schachne, vice-president of mobility solutions at BICS, a supplier of cross-border mobile connectivity services, agreed it would be an “extremely bad move” for MNOs to reimpose roaming tariffs.

“Following the launch of the EU’s ‘Roam Like at Home’ legislation in June [2017], LTE (long-term evolution) data roaming traffic surged by 600-800%, demonstrating the initiative’s huge popularity. As a result, consumers have now come to expect high quality, affordable roaming services, wherever they travel,” said Schachne.

“This is even driving other regions to emulate the EU legislation and offer better packages to their subscribers. With UK consumers now accustomed to the benefits of international roaming, operators risk alienating their subscribers if they reimpose unpopular fees.

“Even if a deal can’t be reached with the EU, UK consumers are therefore unlikely to be taken back to the dark days of bill shock and exorbitant charges.”

Starting from scratch

Despite the hope that consumer pressure may win out, there remain significant stumbling blocks to how mobile roaming between the UK and the EU will work in the longer term. Not least of these is the fact that there is no precedent for any country to have ever left the EU before, so negotiators will be starting from scratch.

Among the ideas that have been floated are a bilateral agreement between Brussels and London governing roaming, separate from any free trade arrangement (FTA). However, this has already been shot down by the EU on the basis that it would likely breach World Trade Organisation rules. This is because the EU would then have to offer free roaming to everybody else.

Perhaps more likely would be the adoption of tariff-free roaming into a future FTA between the UK and the EU, but again, this has never been done before in any other context. The controversial FTA between Canada and the EU does not incorporate roaming, for example, so if the UK was able to strike such a bargain, Brussels would no doubt be receiving an angry letter from Ottawa on behalf of Canadian businesspeople and tourists.

A third option may be for MNOs to negotiate their own free roaming arrangements with network partners in the EU. Here there is some precedent. Prior to June 2017, Three offered tariff-free roaming (on 3G only) in markets where its parent organisation also has a presence, and this arrangement – which also applies to some non-EU markets such as Australia and the US – remains in place today.

Either way, a little over 12 months from now, one thing is for certain: UK travellers will be sailing, quite literally in some cases, into the unknown.

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