Sunday 25 February 2018

To avoid roaming bill shock don't listen to 'no charge' claims

Using your phone abroad? You'll need to pay close attention to your data usage to avoid stiff bills
Using your phone abroad? You'll need to pay close attention to your data usage to avoid stiff bills

A week from today, we will all see our mobile roaming charges disappear. Oh sorry, we won't.

What we will see is the majority of (but not all) charges for calls and texts disappear. We will also see data-roaming allowances increase and data-roaming charges fall. But they will not be abolished. Indeed, the European Commission plans to allow them for at least the next six years - and perhaps indefinitely.

I know it's confusing. But as I write, some Irish politicians are taking out ads claiming that you can use your phone as much as you like abroad in EU countries and not have to worry about a bigger bill.

This is at best misleading. At worst, it's irresponsible. There is no question that thousands will now face unexpected roaming bills after June 15 because they were wrongly led to believe that roaming fees are to be completely dropped.

Here's a quick recap of the main points to next week's EU roaming law.

1. Mobile data roaming charges will remain at up to €9.50 per gigabyte. It's bizarre that politicians, EU officials and a good chunk of the media continue to misrepresent this point.

Under a deal between the European Commission and the mobile industry, the new EU law has inserted a cut-off point for data access when you're in another EU country.

This can be a tiny fraction of your domestic allowance. For example, if you're an iD customer who gets 30GB of monthly data for your monthly €15, you'll only be entitled to around 3GB of it - 10pc of your domestic allocation. It's a similar story for 3 Ireland customers on €20 or €25 monthly deals. These will get under 6GB of roaming data compared to the 60GB they're allocated in Ireland. After these allocations are reached (which can be a few days using Netflix, Facebook and other everyday services), you'll pay almost €10 per GB in roaming charges. This is not "roam like home". This is "find a wifi hotspot like you've always had to or else pay huge mobile penalties".

2. The percentage of your domestic data you'll get abroad depends on your Irish monthly tariff. 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 is pretty complex.

Take the sum of your monthly mobile tariff, take the Vat away, divide it by 7.7 (€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 on similar lines.

The main exception applies to 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. Strip away the Vat and apply the rest of the formula 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 law.

One, Vodafone, has decided to match what you get abroad in the EU with what your domestic allowance is. While this is to be welcomed, it's worth noting that Vodafone's monthly tariffs are generally dearer than rivals relative to the amount of data you get. This means the operator would have had to provide all, or most, of the domestic data allowances anyway.

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