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Adrian Weckler: Roaming, we think it's all over - it's not now


Comreg chairman Gerry Fahy

Comreg chairman Gerry Fahy

Comreg chairman Gerry Fahy

One could call it a challenging first week on the job for Comreg's new chairman, Gerry Fahy. The former Vodafone executive's first task was to avoid saying much of anything about what could be a serious threat to Irish citizens' phone bills.

In case you missed it, a host of mobile operators - led by Three and Meteor - have said that they will try to interpret a new EU roaming abolition law so that they don't have to offer the same amount of data when roaming.

It's a point on which the whole pan-European law may sink or swim: can operators get around the new law by withholding data allowances?

Can they do this simply by redefining what their "core" contract is versus a "service benefit" of "all you can eat data"?

The European Commission doesn't think so. After seeing the Irish Independent's report on the matter, it issued a stinging statement demanding that any operator that was thinking of trying a "loophole" to get around providing roaming data should think again.

But it also said that Comreg is the body tasked with monitoring compliance.

The Irish government, when asked about the issue, said exactly the same thing - this is Comreg's area.

But despite incessant calls for the telecoms regulator to clarify the position, Comreg - alone - has opted not to express a view on the matter.

So although we know what Brussels thinks, we have no idea how the law will be interpreted here by the relevant authority.

Might Comreg be saving its counsel for the next joint Oireachtas Committee hearing, the type where its commissioners always look surprised when TDs and Senators scream at them for a shortfall of public engagement on citizens' telecoms rights?

If so, it may not have that relative luxury. This could turn out to be the most important challenge to a pan-European telecoms law in Europe this year.

And on this particular issue, EU politics is closely in attendance.

In more than 15 years writing about telecoms industry issues, I can't remember the European Commission responding as quickly or as forcefully on an Irish telecoms issue as this one.

There are no prizes for guessing why. The Commission is desperately looking to bolster public confidence in European institutions and EU initiatives. It wants to show Europeans the benefits of remaining in the Union. What better way to do this than to remind people that you pay less for your mobile when you're an EU citizen?

So Comreg may have picked an unfortunate time to offer no guidance on an internationally sensitive issue that is being challenged in Ireland. It is, of course, possible that the regulator is waiting for guidance from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec), a sort of supra-EU authority that sets the ultimate view on the interpretation of EU telecoms legislation.

It's also possible that it's simply waiting for more information from Three.

Or maybe there's been an outage at Comreg. Or a computer crash.

We don't know. The office just won't say anything.

In any event, the issues that have arisen are pretty serious, to Irish and European mobile phone users and to mobile operators.

I wrote extensively last week about the problems it raises for consumers. But it's only fair to recognise the challenges operators face too.

Take Three, which is the operator specifically referring to a redefinition of its data allowances in separate "core" and "benefit" categories. More than any other operator in Ireland, this new law could become very expensive for Three. This is because of its "all you can eat" data allowance. European operators have worked out a ceiling cost of €7.70 per gigabyte (GB) after June when the new EU law kicks in.

From Three's perspective, that means that if an Irish customer were to spend two weeks in Spain and 10GB of mobile data there (which is not hard to do with a family and no local wifi hotspot), it might cost Three up to €77 when that same customer may only be paying €20 per month.

With this in mind, Three had to make a decision - slash its domestic data allowances so it wouldn't get caught out this way or find some other way to restrict roaming allowances.

Realistically, it can't slash its "all you can eat" data offering at home - as this is arguably its single biggest competitive advantage against (in particular) Vodafone.

So it has reached for another route which it believes will give it an equilibrium.

(The European Commission partially disputes this analysis, arguing that there are mechanisms in place that can reduce Three's financial burden if it can demonstrate undue losses.)

It should be pointed out that the amount of roaming data it is offering in its reduced compliment still matches what rivals such as Vodafone or Meteor would give.

That, though, isn't the point.

The point is that this was supposed to be a signature EU law that every ordinary citizen could understand and love: you can use your phone exactly the same way abroad as you can in Ireland.

Sunday Indo Business