Tuesday 22 August 2017

Adrian Weckler: EU roaming pain isn't over yet

Travellers may not be hit by a huge bill, but using 4G in the EU isn’t always easy (stock photo)
Travellers may not be hit by a huge bill, but using 4G in the EU isn’t always easy (stock photo)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Thought the mobile roaming issue had been sorted? Alas, no. Despite Brussels slashing the cost of using your phone across the EU, Irish business users could still face multiple cost barriers.

Top of the list is Brexit.

Next comes the issue of whether operators are actually abiding fully with roaming obligations.

There is good news on Brexit, and less-positive news on roaming implementation.

The good news is that both Vodafone and Three have indicated to your correspondent that they will not reintroduce roaming charges for Irish customers after Brexit.

This is quite a big deal. Britain is the country we visit most in Europe. For those in business, particularly, a return to roaming charges could be very costly, especially if operators decide to return to their ridiculous pre-EU data charges of up to €100 per GB.

The new policy will also come as a big relief to those living in the border counties. Even if residents aren't regularly travelling into the North, many are often caught in roaming patterns by UK-registered towers located a few kilometres away.

With Irish business-users overwhelmingly opting for contracts over pre-pay deals, those looking at new 24-month plans will want to know whether they will be caught towards the end by new Brexit-related roaming fees.

In this regard, the move by Vodafone and Three is likely to ease concerns for a great many business customers. Between them, the two operators hold around 90pc of the business market here.

In doing so, it will also put considerable pressure on Ireland's third- and fourth-largest operators, Meteor (with 20pc of the market) and Tesco Mobile (with 7pc).

Neither owns a network in the UK. As such, neither has the advantage enjoyed by their bigger rivals to control their own roaming charges destiny.

Sure enough, both responded to queries from this newspaper on the issue in a manner that reflects this competitive disadvantage.

"No decision has been made in relation to this," said a spokeswoman for Meteor.

"Tesco Mobile Ireland will continue to maintain a watching brief regarding Brexit as negotiations continue," said a spokeswoman for Tesco Mobile.

Privately, both operators are dearly hoping that an aggregate deal between British and EU authorities is bashed out. Such a deal could get them out of a potentially very difficult spot. Having to reintroduce roaming fees when major rivals can afford not to would damage their competitive prospects.

(For the record, iD Mobile, owned by Dixons Carphone, also says that it will not reintroduce roaming charges after Brexit. Virgin Mobile did not respond to questions on the issue).

It's fair to point out that Brexit-related roaming charges are unlikely to materialise anytime soon. Realistically, a deal between the EU and the UK is expected to take years to finalise. Under EU law, roaming fees between operators must keep reducing until they settle at €2.50 per gigabyte of data in 2022 (down from €7.70 now).

By then, mobile operators will have been used to a trading environment with little or no roaming charges amongst each other. If Brexit does not occur until close to that date, there may not be significant commercial pressure on Irish operators to introduce new roaming fees for travellers to the UK.

Either way, Vodafone and Three may not be taking much of a risk in signalling their post-Brexit charging intentions at this point.

But Brexit isn't the only roaming issue left to tackle. There may be a bedding-in period until Irish mobile customers get a similar experience in other EU countries to the one they have at home.

For example, last weekend (three days after the EU law was introduced), I was in Frankfurt. My family had two phones. One had a Vodafone sim card, and the other had a Three sim card. Neither performed as expected. The Three handset (an iPhone 6) failed pretty badly. Roaming on T-Mobile, it only connected at slow 3G speeds, despite being in 4G-centric central Frankfurt. At times, it simply wouldn't connect. No other operator was allowable on the service. So we were forced to seek wifi or rely on the other handset. This second handset was a Vodafone model (iPhone 7). It connected seamlessly to the local Vodafone network, but speeds were far slower than I'm used to on Vodafone's 4G network at home. Where I get between 20Mbs to 100Mbs on average in Dublin, it appeared to be closer to 2Mbs or 3Mbs in Frankfurt (which has faster speeds). That's not exactly 'roam like home'.

Upon complaint, Vodafone Ireland suggested that there may be a disparity when using Speedtest.net to measure speeds, depending on which server is selected to run the test. However, subsequent tests by me appear to contradict this conclusion.

I'm not the only one experiencing such aberrations in network quality. Several people, including one Irish Government minister, tweeted me during the week with similar complaints (and screenshots) of sub-standard performance on local European networks in France, Spain and other countries.

The problem with this issue is that it will be very difficult to measure and enforce effectively. Operators know that as long as its roaming customers get access to a couple of megabits' connection, the vast majority won't complain. In truth, most are still getting used to the idea of not having to pay extra for any kind of access. But this shouldn't excuse operators. The law is the law. Being placed on 3G in what is clearly a strong 4G zone won't wash for very long. Nor will getting stuck on speeds that could be a fraction of what is available, even if it is on 4G.

We may no longer have the big roaming fees of the past decade. But there may still be some work in making sure that the new rules are adhered to.

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