Mobile Roaming Charging Sees Ofcom Propose New Rules

Ofcom has proposed mandatory roaming alerts for consumers, after most British operators reinstated mobile roaming charges following Brexit.

The UK communications regulator said it has taken the action after new research revealed that nearly one in five holidaymakers are unaware of roaming charges when travelling.

And Ofcom also wants to tackle so called ‘inadvertent roaming’ to protect UK customers from unexpected roaming charges, even when they are still in the UK.

Indeed, one in seven UK mobile customers (14 percent) experience this when abroad or still in the UK, Ofcom said.

Roaming charges

This ‘inadvertent roaming’ is a particular problem for people living on the English coast, when they inadvertently connect to French mobile networks.

But it is a particular problem for people living in Northern Ireland, with many thousands of people living in areas that share the border with Ireland. Research shows that 22 percent of customers in Northern Ireland reported that they had experienced inadvertent roaming onto networks in Ireland in the last year.

The problem stems from most UK mobile operators reinstating mobile roaming charges for their customers after Brexit.

Prior to 2017, high mobile roaming charges had been an issue for years with British mobile users when holidaying aboard.

But in 2014 the European Union created regulations so that people could use their existing mobile tariffs whilst aboard.

Those EU regulations finally went into effect in 2017, which allowed UK users to make use of their mobile phone minutes, texts and data whilst abroad for no extra charge.

Backtracking operators

In December 2020 all four operators namely EE, O2, Vodafone and Three said they had no plans to reinstate roaming charges.

But soon after that, three of them backtracked and announced they would reinstate European roaming charges.

EE in June 2021 became the first mobile operator to controversially reintroduce mobile roaming charges for new customers in Europe that began in January 2022.

Then Vodafone also joined EE in reinstating European roaming charges, justifying it as “fairer way to charge for roaming in Europe”.

Three UK blamed “too many unknowns” for its decision to reinstate mobile roaming charges in Europe, which will began in May 2022.

But there was one exception, namely O2 (now Virgin Media O2), after the Independent newspaper had incorrectly claimed in 2021 that O2 had reintroduced roaming charges for Brits in Europe.

O2 actually allows customers to use their tariffs in Europe where they can use up to 25GB of data in a month, before being charged.

Ofcom announcement

Now Ofcom is proposing new rules that UK mobile customers will have to be told about any roaming charges that apply when travelling abroad.

It comes after Ofcom found that some providers now charge customers around £2 per day to make or receive calls, send texts or go online when travelling in Europe.

However daily roaming costs are even higher for those roaming further afield.

For example Vodafone customers roaming in South Africa have to pay £6 a day to use their tariffs in that country.

Ofcom admitted that some operators have voluntarily continued to send their customers alerts when they start roaming, but its review uncovered concerns that the information provided can be inconsistent and unclear.

Ofcom said its research found that nearly one in five holidaymakers (19 percent) are unaware they could face extra charges when using their mobile abroad and a similar proportion (18 percent) said they do not research roaming charges before travelling.

Many people rely on roaming alerts – 94 percent of travellers are aware of them and more than eight in ten (84 percent) read them, Ofcom said. Of those who read their alerts, 94 percent rate them as either essential or helpful when they first begin to roam and 72 percent modify their behaviour when they see one – such as connecting to Wi-Fi (29 percent), using less data (26 percent) and switching off data roaming (24 percent).

Ofcom has also published top tips on what consumers can do to avoid building up a big mobile roaming bill when travelling this summer. This advice can be found here.

Mandatory roaming alerts

To make sure people have the information they need when they need it, Ofcom is proposing new rules and guidance that would require all UK mobile companies to tell their customers when they start roaming, how much it will cost them and any action they can take to limit their spend.

Under these proposals, mobile customers would get personalised alerts including details on:

  • Roaming charges that will apply including specifying any fair use data limits and the time period that applies to any daily charges.
  • Any mobile bill limit the customer has in place.
  • Where to find free-to-access additional detail on roaming charges, fair use policies and how to monitor, reduce and limit spend.

“Millions of UK holidaymakers head abroad every year and want to stay connected on their travels,” said Cristina Luna-Esteban, Ofcom’s director of telecoms consumer protection. “But without clear information from their provider, they could find themselves facing an unexpected bill for calling home or going online.”

“These alerts would mean whichever mobile provider you’re with, you won’t be left in the dark about roaming charges and action you can take to manage your spending,” said Luna-Esteban.

Ofcom is inviting responses to its consultation by 28 September 2023 and plan to publish its decision in early 2024.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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