Sunday 24 September 2017

Adrian Weckler: We're being conned on roaming

The new EU law allows operators to keep charging extra for data usage. Stock image
The new EU law allows operators to keep charging extra for data usage. Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

I'm an enthusiastic European. In fact, I'm about as Europhile as you can get. I'm probably one of the few people left who likes the idea of a United States of Europe.

But I sometimes despair at the way we're hoodwinked by the European Commission.

This June, we're supposed to see the biggest advance in consumer protection law in a generation: the end of mobile roaming fees across the EU.

And boy, are we slapping ourselves on the back about it. Last week, the European Parliament triumphantly announced that it had overcome the "final hurdle" to herald "the end of roaming" across the EU.

But wait. There's a 'but' the size of Estonia. The new law lets you make calls and send texts without extra fees - but it makes an exception for data.

You read that right. The new EU law for 'roam like home' allows operators to keep charging you massive extra sums for data.

While we all slept, our mobile operators persuaded the European Commission that customers don't need to use Facebook, Google, Gmail, Snapchat, YouTube or Netflix as much when we're on holidays.

So the Commission, the Parliament and the Council (which is made up of our national governments) have agreed that a token amount of our data when abroad should be plenty for us.

It means that many Irish people will now only get a tiny fraction of their domestic data allowance when travelling across the EU.

And if you go over your new crappy EU data allowance, you'll be hit for new roaming charges of almost €10 per GB, which the Commission says will gradually decrease over time.

It's little short of a sell-out. And it is astonishingly disingenuous of EU commissioners, aided and abetted by MEPs and a huge chunk of the media, to claim that EU citizens now won't have roaming bills from June.

"No operator with a €20 per month contract is required to provide more than 5.2 GB of data when the customer is roaming while travelling in the EU as of June 2017," a Commission spokesperson told me when I asked about this restriction. "It is about what can be considered fair behaviour by the customer."

And what about the supposed principle of 'roam like home'? Wasn't that what this whole law was supposed to be about?

"I would accentuate the fact that on average the Irish travel abroad 11 days per year and out of the Irish who travel at least once a year abroad, they spend on average 19 days abroad and not necessarily in the EU," said the spokesperson.

Whatever about the Commission, which are professional civil servants trying to reach solutions, how can MEPs still claim that roaming fees are now abolished?

Is it possible that such people still think of phone calls and SMS texts as being 'the main' things a phone is for? If so, what century are they living in? Do they not have any friends or family that communicate primarily, even exclusively, over WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook?

Can they possibly believe that data is a 'perk'?

The Commission argues that excluding data from the strict 'roam like home' principle was necessary because of wholesale charges that operators charge each other. It also says that the amount of data that ordinary phone customers will be allowed to use free when roaming will gradually increase over the next three years.

But even here, it's hard to take the Commission at its word. As I type, Irish mobile operators are planning to rewrite their terms and conditions in an attempt to limit EU roaming data to as little as 1GB, even after the June 15 'roam like home' introduction date. Indeed, Three Ireland has already provoked an investigation by the telecoms regulator, ComReg, in relation to its State plan to separate data allowances into 'core' and 'benefit' categories. If it gets away with this, it can argue that its 'core' data allowance (that can be relied on when roaming) is only 1GB, while its 'service benefit' allowance at home remains 60GB.

Will the Commission stop this happening? It says it will, but will the mobile operators have a word in its ear first?

It's not like telecom operators need any more encouragement to present too-good-to-be-true claims. Right now, there are probably thousands of Meteor customers under the false impression that they can roam worry-free in the EU. Meteor itself gives this impression on its website where the various plans are advertised. However, look at the small print and it says the "free EU roaming" is limited to 1GB, which is between 3pc and 10pc of its domestic data allowances.

To put this into context, 1GB of data is about half a day's use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram at best. It's utterly insufficient.

Some argue that people shouldn't be relying on mobile data in the first place, but should be seeking out wifi hotspots. But this misses the point of the new EU law entirely. At home, you have an unlimited wifi hotspot for your phone - your dwelling's home wifi. Abroad, reliable wifi hotspots are much harder to find and are often not free. This is exactly when you rely on mobile networks to continue your ordinary life. This is the entire rationale for the concept of 'roam like home'.

This is why it is so disappointing to know the Commission has done a deal to severely limit our roaming abilities.

Why do they continue to claim that roaming charges are to be abolished? Was the lure of a great slogan just too attractive to resist? Don't EU Commissioners understand that such half-truths make people more cynical and not more pro-Europe?

I love Europe. It's a bastion of civilisation and, I think, part of the solution to the world's problems rather than the cause. But I can't be the only one to despair at the pathetic way in which it tries to sell half-cocked measures.

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