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Government legislates to bring back roaming charges in no-deal Brexit

All four UK operators have said they have no plans to reintroduce roaming charges, but EE, O2 and Vodafone have not committed themselves not to do so

The government has introduced legislation to allow mobile network operators (MNOs) to reinstate mobile roaming surcharges for UK citizens travelling within the European Union (EU), should the UK leave the bloc on 29 March with no deal.

The draft statutory instruments, which were introduced on 5 February 2019, remove the requirement for operators to allow their customers to use their voice and data packages as they would in the UK while travelling in the EU without the worry of incurring extra costs.

This is being done in the name of addressing “failures of retained EU law to operate effectively and other deficiencies arising from the withdrawal of the UK from the EU”.

One of the most publicly visible benefits of EU membership that Britons are set to lose thanks to the 23 June 2016 vote to leave, mobile roaming charges were scrapped across the EU in 2017. The Roam Like at Home legislation is underpinned by the regulations that control the charges operators can levy on each other for providing roaming services – a major sticking point during negotiations – and allow them to apply a default financial limit for mobile data usage of €50 (£44).

But without a Brexit deal, Westminster cannot, through national legislation, set caps on the wholesale charges that EU MNOs can impose on their UK counterparts for handling UK users’ roaming traffic. This has to be done centrally by the EU, therefore the government cannot unilaterally guarantee free roaming for British citizens without exposing UK MNOs to the risk of being obliged to offer such a service at a financial loss.

However, the implementation of this legislation does not necessarily mean that mobile roaming charges will automatically be reinstated on the morning of 30 March, if the UK crashes out without a deal – it merely allows the MNOs to do so if they wish.

“In the event that we leave the EU without a deal, the continuation of surcharge-free mobile roaming for UK citizens travelling in the EU would be a commercial decision for the operators,” said a spokesperson at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

So far, all four UK operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – have stated that they have no plans to reintroduce roaming charges, but EE, O2 and Vodafone have also not made a firm commitment not to do so, preferring to hedge their bets on the outcome of the negotiations.

The exception is Three, which has explicitly said that its customers will be able to use their usual allowances when travelling in the EU, exactly as they do now.

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Mikaël Schachne, vice-president of mobility solutions and IoT (internet of things) at BICS, a Belgian-owned wholesale carrier services supplier, said that with data roaming traffic in Europe surging by 600-800% after the implementation of Roam Like at Home, it would be “exceptionally unwise” for operators to go against such clear demand by reintroducing roaming charges.

“In its abolition of roaming charges, the EU set a major precedent, and motivated other operators to offer competitive international tariffs,” he said. “Most of us have now grown accustomed to using our mobile phones – and all of those data-intensive apps and services – when we are abroad, to a similar degree as when we are in the UK. In taking that away, operators risk alienating their customer base, and risk haemorrhaging subscribers to those offering more cost-efficient roaming packages.”

The government’s impact assessment, which accompanies the draft statutory instruments, also acknowledges this, stating that as UK consumers have now had almost two whole years of free roaming, this may “drive operator behaviour towards maintaining surcharge-free roaming to EU destinations”.

Schachne added that in the event that all the UK operators decide to reintroduce roaming charges, users would be unlikely to see the same high tariffs that existed before the EU introduced Roam Like at Home.

“Roaming packages promote and drive subscriber loyalty and encourage the use of all manner of mobile services and apps, helping operators to market and deliver additional services, making it in service providers’ best interests to stay competitive,” he said.

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