MEPs want to lower prices for international phone calls

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MEPs want to put a price cap on calls and text messages from one EU country to another, arguing those rates are outrageously high for many consumers.

The European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) voted on Monday (4 September) to lower charges on calls and text messages from phones in different EU countries as part of a draft telecoms bill.

MEPs have argued that lowering international call charges is the next step towards creating a single telecoms market for European consumers. In June, a legal ban went into effect on mobile roaming charges, which consumers paid when they used their phones as they travelled around the bloc.

The IMCO vote adds pressure on legislators to introduce price caps on international calls. MEPs in a different Parliament committee, which has the lead on the telecoms file, will vote within the next few weeks on a fully binding draft —and that version also includes measures to lower the price of calls and text messages between EU member states. MEPs in the Industry Committe (ITRE) are still debating on Tuesday whether to vote on the bill next week (11 September) or in October.

Czech Liberal MEP Dita Charanzova, who authored the IMCO committee’s opinion on the bill, said it’s an “absurd situation” that people pay higher rates to call other EU countries than for domestic calls.

“The current rates for international calls do not match the true costs of these calls. For mobile phones, especially, these charges are often extreme,” Charanzova told EURACTIV.com.

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European mobile phone contracts are required to charge domestic rates for calls, SMS and data use when users travel in the EU starting today (15 June), capping off a ten-year fight to get rid of roaming fees.

Consumer advocates have pushed for measures to cap international call rates as part of the draft telecoms rules, which the European Commission proposed last year. The Commission did not include any measure to regulate the price of international calls in its original proposal.

“Bringing down roaming charges was a good first step; the full deal will be bridging the price gap between national and international calls,” said Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC.

Calls to other EU countries can range from 65 cents to €1.50 per minute for consumers with Belgian phone contracts or up to 83 cents per minute for Lithuanian consumers, according to data that consumer groups collected last year. Prices are nearly as high in several other EU countries.

For the telecoms industry, proposals to cap call rates within Europe are a reminder of the fights that divided companies and legislators over laws to get rid of roaming fees.

Telecoms firms argue that putting a cap on rates that they are allowed to charge customers for calls and text messages would be an invasive way to regulate the market.

Consumer choice for international calls is broad and markets are competitive. Today’s real challenge is to bring superfast internet to all Europeans,” said Lise Fuhr, director of ETNO, an association that represents big telecoms operators including Deutsche Telekom and Orange.

The draft telecoms bill also includes measures to encourage operators to build faster internet networks, as well as new rules to regulate internet-based services like WhatsApp and Skype and to boost network competition. It must be agreed in three-way negotiations between national governments, MEPs and the Commission before it can go into effect.

Industry groups have also argued that it is unnecessary to regulate the price of international calls because online services like WhatsApp and Skype are becoming more popular as alternative ways to make phone calls and send text messages.

48% of consumers that responded to a 2016 ETNO survey said they had made international calls within the previous year. Out of those consumers that had made international calls, 38% used traditional telecoms providers, while 34% used online services to call abroad.

Some telecoms observers in Brussels have cautioned that negotiations over the bill could be especially fraught if the Parliament insists on pushing through measures to regulate international call rates. Negotiations to get rid of mobile roaming surcharges dragged on for a decade because of fierce disagreements between legislators and telecoms firms.

But the proposal to cap international call rates is popular among MEPs. Last year, 156 MEPs from different political groups asked the Commission to get rid of “abusive” fees for calls within Europe.

Charanzova said she expects a difficult standoff over international call rates.

But I hope that the experience of roaming and the positive outcome will be remembered by Council members. The end of roaming was a win for consumers and most telecom providers. I think this will be as well,” she said.

Before roaming surcharges were abolished this summer, EU law capped charges at progressively lower rates, starting in 2007.

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