Europe needs ambitious roaming

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EU lawmakers must stay ambitious about roaming, says Miapetra Kumpula-Natri. That means keeping caps as low as possible. [Highways Agency/Flickr]

EU lawmakers must stay ambitious about roaming, and that means keeping caps as low as possible, writes Miapetra Kumpula-Natri.

Miapetra Kumpula-Natri is a member of the European Parliament for the Socialist and Democrat group.

The roaming regulation was a success story for the European citizens, freedom of movement and the European single market.

After the legislation entered into force in the summer of 2017, the results have been indisputable: almost 170 million citizens have had an opportunity to enjoy roaming-free prices and benefits of staying connected while travelling in the union.

The use of data roaming increased 17 times in the summer of 2019, compared to the summer of 2016, which was the last summer prior to the abolition of roaming surcharges for consumers.

The process was not easy or fast. Roaming regulation giving consumers the freedom to use mobile phones in the whole EU area has been in the EU’s agenda since 2006. Finally, some 10 years later, free roaming became reality.

At the heart of the negotiations are the wholesale price caps for roaming between teleoperators. The caps set the maximum prices that operators may charge each other when consumers use different networks while calling, text messaging or using data abroad.

As the European Parliament rapporteur, I fought hard for consumers: to guarantee that the regulation covers the whole of EU and to set price cap low enough to facilitate more data usage. The originally proposed data wholesale gap was €8.5 per 1 gigabyte, while Council wanted an even higher price in the beginning.

Thank god we have not seen €85 per 10 GB of data in roaming packages for consumers – and that just for the wholesale price. The gradually reducing price caps were introduced and the Parliament was ready to set annually lowering caps from 4 to 1 €/GB.

The caps adopted in the final legislation were set for €8.5 for half a year and gradually lowering to €2.5 in 2022. Currently, the price cap is €3 per gigabyte, still much higher than what the operators are paying based on the market prices.

The price caps regulation was set for five years, to expire in June 2022. Even though travelling has decreased due to the pandemic, we don´t want to stop free roaming. In February the European Commission published its initiative for new regulation.

So all done? No. The negotiations on the wholesale price caps will be once again at the heart of the process. The need for low caps has not changed, and I see they should be the main goal for the Parliament, the voice of citizens, in the upcoming negotiations.

We are using more and more data on our mobile devices also while travelling, and services using mobile data will increase in the future. Lower caps are essential in order to maintain the unlimited retail offers or large packages for data plans that are becoming common in Europe – as consumers need data services also when not at home.

Price and investments go hand in hand too. That happened right after the 2017 summer. Investments speed up with demand and unit price disappears with steady investment improvements along the years. Losing data connectivity and jump to 3G is an unpleasant surprise for most of us.

The low caps will also benefit the quality of the service as one key pillar in the new proposal is to ensure the same level of quality of service when travelling.

Consumers are angry about this. The roaming markets are working in a way that all the operators usually have fixed, lower wholesale prices for roaming with one of their counterparts in each country. In practice, they have much better deals for roaming with a single provider per country.

If this counterpart is not yet offering a 5G, or in the worst case even 4G network, the speed of your mobile internet will fall in that country even though another teleoperator would have the necessary network in place. It is impossible for consumer to know beforehand all the contracts of his/her homeland telco operator has in each member state.

Data roaming caps at the correct, current commercial level would enable operators to let their customers have the access to more networks in the EU and not just into the one network per country as today due to the difference in the wholesale cost between the commercially preferred operators versus the other operators.

I believe that the caps the Commission has proposed in the new roaming proposal are still too high. There is evidence that the cap proposed from 2025 until 2032 at €1,50 per gigabyte are multiple times higher than the actual average rate of Q1 2021 that operators have been paying on the market.

This proposal is not progressive enough and does not push digitalisation further. The worst news is that again Council might not be ambitious. It is really important for the parliament to be brave for digitalisation to continue – for the benefit of the citizens.

That is why I am happy to see that the rapporteur is taking this concern seriously, with the recent draft proposal heading in a promising direction for European consumers.

We need to unleash the potential of the European Single Market.

As we need to “mind the digital gaps” in the EU in relation to connectivity, we should simultaneously be ambitiously “lowering the caps” in roaming services, for the sake of the price and quality of service for the European citizens and businesses!

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