The European Commission has announced the successful conclusion of a torturous and protracted negotiation process to end roaming charges across the European Union by June 2017.
Over and above commercial stakeholders such as operators, there needed to be consensus among three separate European bureaucracies – the Commission, the Parliament and the Council – for the ruling to be rubber stamped. From June 2017, the announcement states, mobile phone users will pay their normal domestic rate when travelling anywhere in the EU. In anticipation roaming charges will be capped at €0.05 per minute/MB in April 2016.
So far little detail has been shared about the practical implications for operators, but presumably they will be required to implement the same termination rates across Europe as they do domestically. They will, however, be able to apply a fair use policy to prevent abuse of the system, which seems to mean any use other than occasional travel. It’s not difficult to imagine this leading to complications.
The Commission is conflating this agreement with its broader net neutrality agenda, and even more generally the Digital Single Market (DSM) project, which aims to make Europe economically and politically stronger by lowering the barriers to digital interaction. Apparently the principle net neutrality has now been enshrined into EU law, whatever that means.
“Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for net neutrality rules,” said Andrus Ansip, Commission VP for the DSM. “They have been heard. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to create a Digital Single Market. Our plans to make it happen were fully endorsed by Heads of State and Government last week, and we should move faster than ever on this.”
“I welcome today’s crucial agreement to finally end roaming charges and establish pragmatic net neutrality rules throughout the EU,” Günther Oettinger, another Eurocrat. “Both are essential for consumers and businesses in today’s European digital economy and society. We will build on these important foundations in our forthcoming review of the EU’s telecoms legislation.”
Ernest Doku of uSwitch.com remains sceptical. “We’ve heard this before,” he said. “Data roaming charges were due to be abolished in the EU at the end of 2015 and the U-turn confused and frustrated people. Mid 2017 is a long way off, particularly when a fifth of UK holidaymakers have returned home from an EU trip in the past year to find their bill was, on average, £61 higher than usual – amounting to £573 million collectively. Of these, around one in six had to pay upwards of £100 on top of their normal bill.
“Let’s hope there’ll be no more backtracking after Europe’s mobile networks have had their say. The ‘safeguards’ to address the recovery of costs by operators will have to be suitably robust to financially protect mobile customers and make sure bills don’t rise.
“The second announcement, on net neutrality, is a big step with positive implications for consumers. If providers cannot prioritise some services over others then, essentially, it’s a move away from a two tier internet model. But it’s early days and, like the debates over scrapping EU roaming charges, these good intentions could still unravel.”
Mark Windle from OpenCloud warns operators have some adapting to do. “EU roaming premiums are on their way out and reducing mobile operators’ revenues with them,” he said. “This is on top of the fiercely competitive market conditions that have arisen over the last few years that have already squeezed the operators’ revenue streams.”
“In order to compete effectively in the marketplace, operators need to add tangible value to their LTE services. Internet companies and OTT players like Google and Facebook have been offering free, value-added services to their customers continuously, providing incremental updates at no extra cost. Operators must replicate this model and put more effort into innovation to increase and strengthen customer loyalty. Adding further value to their communication services could be the differentiator that operators need to win market share.”
On first impression this seems to be an agreement within the European super-bureaucracy and it’s not clear what right of appeal operators and other interested parties might have. There is, however, a certain glacial inevitability about decisions that reached this stage of sign-off and it’s clear that the days of roaming charges in Europe are numbered.