The European Union clinched a preliminary deal early on Wednesday (31 January) to cap wholesale charges telecom operators pay each other when their customers use their mobile phones abroad, paving the way for the abolition of roaming fees in June.
The caps on wholesale roaming charges were the last piece of the puzzle needed for the abolition of retail roaming charges as of June 15, 2017, crowning a decade of efforts by Brussels to allow citizens to use their phones abroad without paying extra.
Wholesale charges for data – which were the most controversial given the exponential use of mobile internet – will be capped at 7.7 euro per gigabyte from June 2017, going down to 2.5 euro per gigabyte in 2022.
Caps for making calls will decrease from 5 euro cents per minute to 3.2 euro cents per minute, while those for sending text messages will halve to 1 euro cent from 2 euro cents as of June, said a spokesman for Malta, which holds the rotating EU presidency and steered the talks on behalf of national governments.
“If consumers exceed their contract limits when roaming, any additional charges will not be higher than the wholesale roaming caps agreed today,” the European Commission said in a statement, welcoming the deal.
“Goodbye roaming,” tweeted Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, the EU lawmaker who steered the law on behalf of the European parliament.
— Miapetra Kumpula-N (@miapetrakumpula) February 1, 2017
Boost for EU
The European Commission – the EU executive – will review the wholesale caps every two years and propose new ones if necessary.
Wednesday’s deal still needs to be confirmed by the full European Parliament and member states. But it is a first success for the Malta Presidency of the EU.
Tangible results for our citizens. Thanks to all involved. https://t.co/eFmQlPsfTT
— Ian Borg (@followianborg) February 1, 2017
The battle against roaming charges took on an added significance after Britain voted to quit the bloc last year in a surge of anti-EU sentiment and Brussels has sought to show it works for ordinary citizens.
“Last night’s political agreement is a final achievement to make ‘roam-like-at-home’ work as of 15 June 2017,” the Commission said.
“Today we deliver on our promise,” said Andrus Ansip, European Commission vice-president. “This was the last piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Tourist traffic in EU’s south
But after the agreement to abolish retail roaming charges in June this year, policymakers grappled with the challenge of who would foot the bill as telecom operators still need to pay each other to keep their customers connected abroad.
The quandary was compounded by wide differences in domestic prices and consumption patterns across the bloc, making a wholesale cap that suited all national markets extremely hard to find.
Countries in Eastern Europe, where consumers gobble up mobile data at low prices favoured lower wholesale caps to avoid companies raising prices in their home markets, effectively making poorer customers subsidise frequent travellers.
However countries in the tourist-magnet south worried that their operators could be forced to hike domestic prices to recover the costs of accommodating the extra tourist traffic.
Monique Goyens, Director General of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), commented:
“We are relieved that EU legislators have shown ambition to deliver on their promise to end roaming charges. This deal ensures that roaming without surcharges will become a reality in June.
“The price caps which where agreed last night have a direct impact on how much mobile data a consumer can use when abroad. The lower the wholesale price cap, the larger the amount of data that consumers will have while roaming.”
Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, a Finnish MEP from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group was the lead negotiator for the the European Parliament. In a statement, she said:
"Roaming charges are now a thing of the past. Europeans no longer face huge phone bills after travelling. They can use their phones abroad just like at home without paying extra. Instead of switching off their phone when crossing a border people will now be able to call their friends from the beach, tweet from a conference or check their emails at the airport.
“Delivering on roaming charges was a test of the EU’s ability to deliver - and we delivered. Under the leadership of the Socialists and Democrats, the European Parliament defended the interests of citizens and small operators against big telecom companies. Being able to push the data price cap down benefits the consumers directly, as the lower the cap, the more data they can use when travelling."
Jens Rohde, a Danish MEP, was shadow rapporteur for the liberal ALDE Group in the European Parliament. In a statement, he said:
"Reforms to the wholesale market, covering telecom operators' costs, will ensure big operators won’t need to send large bills on to the little ones.”
“It's not a perfect deal for the wholesale market, but we are satisfied with the compromise, especially given the Council's unacceptable starting point and unwillingness to compromise in the first rounds of negotiations."
Michel Reimon, an Austrian MEP, who is the Green/EFA's shadow rapporteur for the negotiations, said in a statement:
"The European Parliament made sure that the interests of consumers were well represented in the negotiations, delivering a reduction in wholesale roaming prices that will help people get a fair deal. By placing a significantly lower cap on data tariffs, roaming charges will soon become a thing of the past. This outcome of the negotiations is a clear success for the European Parliament. While some Member States tried to block the abolition of roaming charges, serving the interests of a few big telecom groups, the majority of the parliament held firm against this."
The European Commission proposed a new bill on 21 September to get rid of mobile roaming charges by June 2017.
The EU executive defended the new bill, which will not limit the number of days that consumers can travel and still use their mobile phones without roaming charges. Telecoms companies can monitor consumers to make sure they don’t abuse their roaming rights.
A first draft bill proposed limiting roaming without extra fees for 90 days per year. But it was withdrawn after it ran into criticism by consumer groups who were outraged by the proposed limit.