Business Technology

Saturday 24 February 2018

Another Angle: EU's 'roam like home' law being strangled by slower service

Irish get a relatively good deal on mobile data when compared to other countries. Stock photo: PA
Irish get a relatively good deal on mobile data when compared to other countries. Stock photo: PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Notice that your mobile phone now gets painfully slow when you're travelling across the EU? You're not alone.

More and more people are finding that what should have been a great step forward in consumer rights is being stymied by weaker, slower services.

In particular, travellers are starting to find that their service is being 'throttled' when they visit other EU countries.

Where you might get a nice, fast 4G mobile speed here in Ireland, it appears to be pared right back in France, Germany or other EU countries so that you only get a slow 3G service (or worse).

This saves the mobile operator money as they don't have to pay as much in data fees to the local operator within the country you're visiting. And if that means that you can't use sites you normally would at home on your phone, such as YouTube, Netflix of messaging services, hard luck on you.

This goes against the spirit (and possibly the letter) of the anti-roaming law brought in by the EU earlier this year. That law was supposed to enshrine the principle that you would get the same service abroad as at home, with no extra charge. However, some European operators admit that they do, in fact, throttle user speeds for customer travelling abroad. In July, Britain's O2 was forced into revealing that when its customers visit Ireland, the operator reduces their mobile service from a normal 4G speed (around 20Mbs) to a sub-3G speed (0.5Mbs per second).

"Data roaming surpassed all expectations," said the company in July. "We therefore have put temporary measures in place to protect the service experience for customers roaming in our Europe zone.

"These firewalls are temporary and we are working to have these controls removed within the coming weeks."

Officially, Irish operators deny that they perform similar throttling exercises when Irish people travel across Europe.

However, many Irish people have complained about far slower speeds when travelling abroad, sometimes diminishing through the day to zero by late afternoon.

My own experience in recent months indicates that mobile performance can vary vastly to the experience on the home network in Ireland. In the UK (London) and Germany (Frankfurt and Berlin), I found that mobile speeds slowed to around 0.5Mbs compared to average speeds of between 15Mbs and 80Mbs in Dublin. I used two networks: Vodafone and Three. Both were erratic and often became unusable due to slow speeds.

It must be said that other Irish users have sometimes reported commendably fast speeds they get when abroad. Discussing the issue on social media recently, one person displayed a screenshot of over 60Mbs achieved when roaming in Seville.

So what's going on?

In theory, it is unlikely that local European operators would throttle the visitors' speed as they earn a larger amount of money for every gigabyte used by a visiting tourist from another EU country than they do from their own domestic customers.

It is still possible, however, that local networks can be overwhelmed if an unusually large number of people try to use the network at once. This sometimes happens at events such as concerts or sporting occasions where large crowns gather and try to connect online at the same time.

When that happens, operators seek to manage the demand placed on the network by slowing everyone's access a little.

This is where a potential grey area in the EU legislation comes in. Because operators are given leeway to manage their network speeds based on demand, there are no hard and fast rules about exactly what speeds a roaming visitor should be entitled to when visiting another country.

However, when you go from 80Mbs to 0.8Mbs - as I did recently when switching from central Dublin to central Berlin - there is arguably more going on than natural network management.

(Speed test apps can sometimes be misleading, it must be acknowledged. However, my own tests were on several different speed test apps and varied the servers to offset potential discrepancies in technical testing.)

It is fair to say that mobile operators have been less than enamoured with the EU law to do away with roaming charges. It is certainly costing them money.

And for all that we give out about mobile operators here, we get a relatively good deal on mobile data compared to some other European countries and the US -€20 for 60GB of monthly 4G data, as is widely available in Ireland, is unheard of in the US, it costs three times that price.

Roaming charges have been a way for operators to keep domestic prices like data access fairly low.

So it is fair to acknowledge that mobile operators have a challenge to make up that lost income when roaming fees are taken away from them.

However, the law is the law. It makes no sense to pass EU legislation requiring 'roam like home' when operators are allowed to strangle your access when you try to use the service abroad.

The European Commission is fairly basking in the glow of having reduced roaming charges for EU citizens. It may well be that the job is not yet finished and that mobile operators will need to be brought to task for denying customers effective service abroad.

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