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Roaming cuts a ‘smokescreen’ says BEUC

Telecoms companies have not made any real cuts to roaming charges, despite arguing otherwise, the European consumers’ group, BEUC said Tuesday. The group recommended that no consumer should pay more than 33 Euro cents (22 pence) for calls made outside a home country, significantly lower than the 45 Euro cent maximum proposed by the European Commission.

Following a study, the BEUC condemned operators’ efforts to hype roaming ‘cuts’ in a barrage of high-profile advertising campaigns, labeling them a “smokescreen” designed to stave off a regulatory price cap. According to the BEUC report, roaming fees, which the group dubbed “excessive”, have not come down despite new roaming tariffs.

BEUC director Jim Murray was scathing of those new tariffs which followed the EU’s Information Society and Media Commissioner, Viviane Reding’s attacks on roaming charges last summer. “Their main function is as a smokescreen,” Murray said.

In November last year, operator club the GSM Association (GSMA), wheeled out a retail price index compiled by research and consultancy house AT Kearney, claiming that the average price for making and receiving mobile calls when roaming within Europe had fallen by 22 per cent over the previous twelve months.

But Murray said that new tariffs from players such as Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile and Orange are “too complex”, with no appreciable effect on changes overall.

As an example Murray’s team examined a claim by Vodafone which said last year that the average cost for calls in Europe would fall from more than 61 pence (89 Eurocents) a minute to less than 37.7 pence a minute by April. The BEUC argues that Vodafone’s Passport offer is only available if a call is made from a Vodafone network and, for French customers, was only advantageous if an outbound call lasted longer than 92 seconds and a call received from another network subscriber was longer than 171 seconds.

The reports said: “The logic of the operators is to multiply package offers with seemingly low prices to try to substantiate the idea that an imposed retail price would inhibit more advantageous offers for the consumers.”

The president of the French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir’s, Alain Bazot said the operators and the GSMA’s argument that regulation is not needed because the companies would bring prices down themselves was deceptive. “They [mobile operators] are twisting the truth. From the beginning they have organised collusion on a massive scale throughout Europe,” Bazot said.

David Pringle, spokesman for the GSMA stopped short of dismissing the BEUC’s findings but told Telecoms.com that “the cuts are real”, despite the BEUC’s body of evidence. He added: “I cannot see how bringing improved choice for the consumer cannot fail [to bring prices down]. There will always be different packages that will benefit different users. operators are making those available and have been for many months.”

Those choices, however, are not providing deals that correspond to the European consumer’s needs, according to the BEUC.

Citing Orange, the report said: Orange claims that a roaming call in Italy can be made for 50 Eurocents per minute. In fact this offer is possible only for a single subscription in the year between July and October to an offer of 10 minutes for 5 Euros, or effectively 50 Eurocents per minute. In reality the tariff is indeed fixed at 1 Euro per minute, the first minute being indivisible, apart from the exceptional offer.” The group provided an extract from Orange’s own tariff for February to corroborate its claims.

Several other examples follow, including Vodafone’s Passport, T-Mobile’s ‘Relax holiday’ among others.

The report was scathing of them all. Contradicting claims the new tariffs are flexible, the BEUC said: “Fixed price plans cannot be used to demonstrate a fall in prices charged to consumers. They are not suitable for tourist use but only for certain specific niche situations and professional requirements (self-employed people).”

The operators’ club, the GSMA, was also criticised, asserting that all its members are entirely reliant on the figures published by the GSMA, “which is in itself an interested party”. Asked if he thought it was time for an independent body to take over its role, Pringle said: “That’s entirely an issue for the EC.”

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