European Parliament To Vote On Roaming Charges

Roaming costs look set be capped in Europe thanks to an activist campaign

A vote on the EU regulation that would see roaming charges capped at a fraction of their current costs will take place in the European Parliament in Brussels tomorrow.

It is the culmination of the citizen campaign “Europeans for Fair Roaming“ that started on Facebook two years ago and has gathered more than 150,000 supporters along the way.

Roaming across Europe

Mobile network operators charge comparatively large amounts for roaming calls, texts and data when users are outside their home country. They justify this by referring to extra expenses incurred when using foreign networks. But organisation Europeans for Fair Roaming believes the practice is preventing the creation of a single European telecommunications market and negatively influences the competitiveness of the European economy as a whole.

“We started in May 2010, after a meeting with the European Federalist Party,” Bengt Beier, campaign co-ordinator at Europeans for Fair Roaming, told TechWeekEurope. “We wanted to tackle real world problems, not indulge in politics. First thing we did was start a Facebook campaign. This grew into Europeans for Fair Roaming. We have supporters coming from all backgrounds, including over a dozen MEPs.”

The initiative has united more than 150,000 EU citizens, 18 associations and 14 members of European Parliament (including three from the UK).

If the new regulation passes the vote, roaming charges will be considerably lowered from July. The cost for using mobile phones when abroad will be slashed to €0.29 per minute for calls, €0.09 for each SMS text and €0.20 per MB of data usage. In 2014, the prices will go down even more, to €19/min for calls, €0.06/SMS and €0.20/MB for Internet access.

“The large operators don’t like the idea of a price cap,” Beier said. “For them, especially multinational companies, the actual cost of providing the service is low. But the more they can charge, the higher their profits will be. For example in Austria, 1GB of data can cost around €4. But when I go to another European country, my service provider wants me to pay up to €1200 for the same amount of data. The actual cost for them to provide the service just cannot be this high.”

However, mobile network providers don’t just make these numbers up. “Operators have contracts with each other. And they charge each other when providing roaming services. Their motivation to lower prices is limited. They just say ‘we have to charge this, because that’s how much other operators are billing us’. It’s a convenient system. It drives prices up, instead of down,” Beier added.

Freedom to decouple

In addition, the new regulation will allow “decoupling”, enabling consumers to switch to a cheaper operator when abroad. “There are two possible ways to do this. For example, when you go abroad, you could get a text informing you of various offers,” explains Beier.

“It would look something like ‘Operator A charges you this much for calls and this much for data, and Operator B – this much’. I think this is a very likely solution. You could also be able to opt for a roaming provider before going abroad, like taking a second contract, just for roaming.”

It is expected that the deal negotiated between Parliament and the governments of member states will be approved tomorrow. For Beier, new regulation is a done deal: “I am 90 percent confident we’ll win. The European Parliament debated the proposal, and representatives of the European governments approved it in the end of March. We should have a clear majority.”

After tomorrow’s vote, there will be another vote in the Council of Ministers in June. By July, regulation could already come into force. First price caps will kick in this year, followed by another round in 2014. That’s also when decoupling measures could become mandatory. “I don’t believe it will come as a surprise to any of the operators,” concluded Beier.

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