Adrian Weckler: EU roaming won't be like home
Ten days from now, roaming charges get dropped across Europe - or rather, they do for calls and texts. For data, it's more complicated.
Many Irish people will only get a portion of their domestic monthly data allowance when roaming in the EU, because of a deal between the European Commission and the mobile industry. So people will still face up to €9.50 per gigabyte (a huge sum) in roaming fees once their allowance is used up.
Only those who get small monthly allowances or pay relatively high monthly tariffs will get the same data abroad as they get at home.
You wouldn't know this from the blanket "roam like home" headlines and soundbites surrounding the issue. You also wouldn't know it from the lack of communication about it to customers from mobile operators here.
Ahead of the big day on June 15, here's what you will and won't get and how much your new roaming bills will be.
1. If I don't get my whole monthly data allowance, how much will I actually get?
The answer depends mostly on how much your monthly mobile tariff is. A very rough rule of thumb is that you get around 2GB of EU roaming data for every €10 you spend on your plan here.
But that's subject to a myriad of provisos and exceptions. The actual formula agreed by the EU and operators is pretty complex.
It goes as follows: take the sum of your monthly mobile tariff, take the Vat away, divide it by 7.7 (because €7.70 is the agreed EU inter-operator price per gigabyte of data) and multiply it by two. There's your monthly EU data allowance
I know that sounds Byzantine, so here's an example. You pay €20 per month. The ex-Vat price of that is €16.25. So divide €16.25 by 7.7 and you 2.1. Now multiply it by two to get your EU data allowance - 4.2GB.
So a €20 monthly tariff gives you 4.2GB of EU roaming data, regardless of how much data you get at home with that €20 tariff. It scales up from there along similar lines: around 6GB for a €30 monthly tariff and so on.
As I said, there are provisos and exceptions. The main one applies for people who are on monthly contracts with free or subsidised phones. Here, the operator is allowed to deduct the price of the phone subsidy when calculating your data allowance. In other words, if you're paying €60 a month on a 24-month contract and got an iPhone 7 free with that, the operator is entitled to deduct the iPhone subsidy (probably half of €60 per month) from its data calculation. On a €60 iPhone 7 deal, that might only leave €30 to be counted. Strip away the Vat and apply the rest of the formula (above) and you're entitled to about 6GB per month, no matter how much data you normally get at home.
The other main exception is that your roaming data allowance won't ever be more than your domestic data allowance. So if you are unfortunately stuck on some ridiculous deal that only gives you, say, 2GB of monthly data on a €35 monthly tariff, you'll only ever get access to 2GB when you're roaming in the EU.
Of course, mobile operators are perfectly free to give you more roaming data than the legal minimum they're obliged to under the law. But most aren't - they regard the roaming law as a major cost and are trying to work out how much they can restrict it. (Vodafone is giving a bit more data than it has to on ultra-high tariffs, such as its €80-a-month deal which gives 30GB at home and in the EU.)
The good news for us as consumers is that the legal formula worked out between the EU and operators will change next year and again the year after that, meaning that we'll get more EU roaming data by law. At present, the formula is based on a rate of €7.70 per gigabyte, but this will reduce to €6 in 2018, then €4.50 the year after that, eventually falling to €2.50 by 2022. So in 2022, your €20 monthly tariff should guarantee you at least 13GB of EU roaming data (assuming you have that allowance at home).
2. Will operators give me second-rate, slowed-down data speeds as a sneaky way to limit the amount of roaming data I have a right to use in other EU countries?
Mobile operators sometimes engage in "throttling". This is when they deliberately slow down the speed you get on your data connection.
There are umpteen reasons why they do this at present. It might be because you've exceeded a data limit or aren't on a premium payment plan. It could also be to manage traffic due to capacity issues.
Unfortunately, the new EU law doesn't explicitly forbid this. However, it implies that throttling would contravene the general condition that operators must offer like-for-like services abroad as at home.
In any case, all three of the main Irish mobile operators say throttling won't happen.
"It is part of our roaming agreement with our roaming partners that our customers have to experience the same service as their own subscribers when roaming on their network and therefore speeds cannot be limited for roaming users," a 3 Ireland spokeswoman told me.
This view has been reiterated by 3 Ireland's biggest rival, Vodafone.
"Vodafone Ireland does not restrict the speeds for our customers while roaming and our customers can avail of the best speeds available on the visited networks," said a Vodafone spokeswoman.
Meteor, too, swears that throttling won't be a thing. "Meteor customers will have access to the same speeds as our partner's customers have," said a spokeswoman for the Eir-owned operator.
For what it's worth, European Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt says that the Commission takes a dim view on throttling. "If an Irish operator pursues practices that are in breach of the roaming rules, ComReg will need to intervene," she said.
Sunday Indo Business