Monday 24 July 2017

Time for truth on data roaming

Irish tourists on the continent will still have to watch their data usage. Stock image
Irish tourists on the continent will still have to watch their data usage. Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Last week, 3 Ireland reversed its decision on EU data roaming, abandoning plans to restrict travel allocations to 3pc of domestic allowances. But with under a month ago, misinformation still abounds about 'the end of roaming' in the EU. Here's a quick guide to what is true and what is not true.

"On June 15, roaming charges across the EU are being abolished. You will be able to roam like home."

This is half true. Telephone calls and old-fashioned SMS texts will no longer have roaming charges attached to them when used anywhere in the EU. That means that whatever monthly allocation you have in Ireland counts anywhere you go in the EU. But for data, there are strict limits. If you have a good data deal in Ireland, you won't get it across the EU. For example, if you're an iD customer who pays €15 per month for 30GB of monthly data, you'll only get 3GB of data, a tiny fraction of your domestic allowance. The new EU law allows for this, having agreed with mobile operators a formula that lets them drastically restrict the amount of data customers can use when roaming.

"Yes, but these data restrictions will apply to a minority of customers."

No, they won't. According to the most recent Irish telecoms statistics, half of Irish mobile phone subscribers are on prepay plans. These typically cost around €20 per month. That tariff gets you between 10GB and 60GB of mobile data with a number of operators. For instance, one of the most popular mobile plans in the country is 3 Ireland's €20 per month prepay option, which has "all you can eat" data (capped at 60GB). Under the new regime, you'll only be allowed to use 5GB of that plan's data when roaming in the EU. Anything over that will cost you almost €10 per gigabyte.

"But very few people use more than 5GB of data when they're on holidays or travelling for work."

This is utter nonsense. It may be true that people don't rack up 5GB of cellular network data because they have to use wifi hotspots or pay huge roaming fees at present. But they're still using lots of data on their phones. They're still engaging in social media, Netflix and video calls. At home, they can do this on the mobile network because of the mobile data packages they choose. Abroad, these new EU roaming restrictions mean they'll have to watch their usage or face massive bills when they get home.

"Okay, but people can always find a wifi hotspot abroad."

Yes. And because EU citizens won't have access to their domestic data allowances, they'll bloody well have to now. This is what makes the 'roam like home' utterances from the mouths of politicians and European officials so misleading. The whole point of the new law was supposed to be that you could actually use your phone as you would at home, not have to seek out a dodgy hotel reception area on the other side of town to watch a Netflix episode. At home, it's not a problem supplementing your mobile data with wifi, because you have it free in your house, apartment or at work. Abroad, finding reliable wifi is much more difficult, especially in non-urban environments. This is precisely the time when one most needs to rely on mobile data for daily data services that we now depend on.

"It needs to be this way or else operators would have to raise prices at home."

Why? Why does an Irish Vodafone customer have to pay five times the rate of a German Vodafone customer to access a YouTube video when in Germany? Sorry, that smells like pure profit rather than unavoidable cost. The same goes for 3 Ireland customers roaming in Italy or the UK. True, there are many operators that do not have this scale across different European countries. But even here, operators' failure to agree modest interconnection rates among themselves should arguably not come down on the heads of citizens. There are no roaming charges to be paid by an English phone customer using his phone's data in Scotland. Likewise for a Sicilian watching Netflix on his phone while Milan. So in a European single market, why should interoperator pricing remain such an exotic concept? How did such notional sums for notional costs over borders take hold? Operators complain that because Europeans overwhelmingly travel south rather than north for holidays, it would place an unfair burden on the networks taking up the extra load. Therefore, operators are being given until 2023 to keep charging big amounts for data, starting at €7.70 per gigabyte (GB) this year, falling to €2.50 per gigabyte in 2022. While such inter-operator charging may be a current reality, it makes a mockery of a European single market.

"We're trying to protect domestic customers from prices going up because of the roaming costs to us."

If so, Irish operators are having mixed success. The three biggest Irish mobile operators have all raised prices recently. 3 Ireland raised prices the most, on both prepay and bill pay packages (up to 20pc on €25 packages). Vodafone and Meteor are also raising prices. In Meteor's case, it's by stealth. Last week, the operator quietly reduced its top-up period for prepay users to 28 days (starting on June 8). That equates to almost a full month's extra cost each year. Vodafone, which had already shortened its prepay periods to 28 days late last year, is raising some other call charges by as much as 20 cent per minute.

"Look, this is a big improvement on what went before."

This is undeniably true. The EU and the European Commission deserve significant credit for gradually reducing mobile costs over the last decade. But the more EU officials incorrectly say that roaming costs are a thing of history, the more they dilute the achievement.

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