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Adrian Weckler: ‘Watch out for a sting in the tail to roaming charge abolition’


Mobile phone roaming fees in the EU will fall sharply from Saturday, April 30.

Mobile phone roaming fees in the EU will fall sharply from Saturday, April 30.

Mobile phone roaming fees in the EU will fall sharply from Saturday, April 30.

So Europe is to abolish mobile roaming charges from June 2017 and tighten up on net neutrality rules.

It’s good news for consumers. But there remain a few issues that could temper our enthusiasm.

The biggest one is a ‘fair use’ exception to roaming limits. Will there be a limit to the amount of data, calls or texts you can use without roaming fees being added?

There might be. Some Irish deals give you lots of data (15GB), calls (10,000 minutes) and texts (50,000) on a post-pay plan. Does that mean you can use all of this when roaming? On any network you choose in the foreign EU country? If not, how little of it can you actually use? This is where the small print will kick in.

At first glance, it all appears to be clear and positive.

“If you pay for a monthly volume of minutes, SMS and data in your country, any voice call, SMS and data session you make while travelling abroad in the EU will be deducted from that volume as if you were at home, with no extra charges,” says the European Commission.

But there’s a catch.

“There is a fair use safeguard,” the EU statement continues. “Once that limit is reached while being abroad, a small basic fee can be charged… The Commission has been mandated to define the details of the fair use limit.”

So what will ‘fair use’ really be? 1GB? 10GB? Three weeks in any one roaming period?

This is crucial. Lots of people now rely on their mobile data for Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, Skype and tons of other data-heavy applications. It’s their ordinary daily use now.

If the EU is to decide that, in fact, only 1GB of data is to free from roaming charges, the whole thing could be fairly useless. Or rather, it will be great for Nokia-using pensioners, but irrelevant to a large chunk of ordinary smartphone users.

But could the ‘fair use’ exception not be a data thing at all, but focus more on time periods spent roaming?

“The rules prevent abusive uses,” says the European Commission statement. “For example, if the customer buys a SIM card in another EU country where domestic prices are lower to use it at home. or if the customer permanently stays abroad with a domestic subscription of his home country. This is not the usual use of roaming as the vast majority of Europeans experience it. These unusual behaviours are also called 'permanent roaming' and could have a negative impact on domestic prices, and ultimately on consumers.”

Here, the rationale appears to be time, not data.

The key issue lies with who will influence decisions on ‘fair use’ exceptions. Mobile operators will lobby their governments furiously to restrict data limits -- which is increasingly the only thing that matters -- in particular.

Don’t be surprised to see the governments of Spain (Telefonica) or the UK (Vodafone) appeal for “common sense” limits to free EU roaming data to “help protect investment and innovation” in the networks.

Online Editors