Europe split on abolition of mobile roaming charges

EU citizens will be able to make person-to-person payments by smartphone in 2018. [John Karakatsanis/Flickr]

The European Union’s ambition to end mobile roaming charges for citizens travelling across the continent is being stymied by member states backing their national operators, officials say.

The European Commission, the EU executive, proposed an ambitious overhaul of the continent’s telecoms market in 2013 which set out a roadmap for abolishing roaming charges.

Brussels, eager to boost its image by showing it can deliver tangible, positive results for citizens, has made ending roaming charges a banner issue.

But almost two years later the date originally envisaged for the end of roaming charges, December 2015, is off the table.

>> Read: EU considers delaying end of mobile roaming charges

Instead, member states in the European Council have pushed the date back to mid-December 2018 and are seeking to find a compromise with lawmakers in the European Parliament who want roaming charges to be abolished by the end of next year.

A third round of negotiations, which took place on Tuesday evening, ended without a deal, two EU sources said. Expectations had been low because of the gap between the two positions.

The delay to ending roaming charges has angered the Commission, the Parliament and consumer rights organisations who say some member states are defending the interests of their national operators.

“Now it is up to the member states if they want to be the lawyer for the citizens and consumers or for the telecom companies,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in an interview with German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Monday.

However, the interests of the telecoms operators in the 28-member bloc are not aligned.

Eastern European countries – where domestic rates are cheap – are worried that their operators will be forced to hike prices at home if roaming charges are removed prematurely, since companies pay wholesale charges to another operator when their customers travel abroad.

On the other hand, countries with a lot of incoming traffic from tourists, such as Spain and Greece, have an incentive to keep wholesale charges high.

Albeit for different reasons, the result is the same.

“Yes there are related problems such as wholesale costs between operators, however neither this nor Southern European countries’ interests in the tourists who come to their shores excuse inaction,” said Ursula Pachl, deputy director general for European consumer organisation BEUC.

The Parliament and member states agree on the need for a review of wholesale charges, but the former wants the review to be followed more quickly by an end to retail roaming charges.

France is among the countries blocking an earlier end date for roaming charges, an EU source said. Other countries include Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

Ursula Pachl is Deputy Director General at BEUC, the European consumer organisation. She commented:

“The Council have been dragging their feet on roaming and net neutrality for far too long. The Parliament and Commission have been coming through crystal clear – ending roaming in Europe is overdue. Yes there are related problems such as wholesale costs between operators, however neither this nor Southern European countries’ interests in the tourists who come to their shores excuse inaction. We have seen the deadlines pushed back repeatedly in recent years, but the Council must support the Parliament’s reasonable compromise that December 2016 sees roaming charges become history."

The European Commission introduced a cap on prices of cross-border mobile calls for the first time in June 2007 – the so-called 'roaming regulation’.

Ending roaming charges is a priority for the Commission, which proposed to eliminate fees for receiving calls abroad in a proposal known as Connected Continent, tabled in September 2013.

>> Read: Commission cuts mobile roaming charge: one step closer to abolishment

Last year, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to end roaming fees within the EU by the end of 2015, as data-hungry consumers complained of the high and opaque cost of using their devices abroad.

>> Read: Telecoms reform passes first Parliament hurdle

But finding a way to end retail roaming charges has been complicated by the wholesale charges that operators pay each other when their customers travel abroad.

Member states with cheap domestic rates, such as those in eastern Europe, worry that their operators will be forced to hike domestic prices if the wholesale tariffs they pay other operators when their customers travel abroad are not lowered.

  • Dec. 2015: Initial deadline for abolishing roaming fees within the European Union
  • Dec. 2018: New proposed deadline

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