The end of international roaming fees in Europe is in sight, though it’s still a bit off in the distance. The European Parliament voted to abolish roaming fees within its border, but we’ll have to wait until the June 15 of 2017 before the ban goes entirely into effect. On that date anyone moving between countries in the EU’s borders will pay the same rates for calls, SMS and mobile data he or she pays at home.
Before Europe sees that type of flat rate pricing, the EU and the mobile industry have to overhaul the complex system of roaming agreements between Europe’s operators. In the interim, though, Europe will require most operators to reduce their current roaming rates. Starting at the end of April, no operator will be able to charge more than €0.05 per outgoing voice minute or megabyte of date or €0.02 for SMS message over their regular domestic tariffs. The EU also plans to set a cap on charges for incoming calls before the April deadline.
The big question is whether pushing down roaming rates will cause price bumps to form in other parts of the market. To compensate for lost roaming revenue, will operators simply raise their domestic rates, or will they raise roaming rates for countries outside of the EU’s borders? The EU’s decision provided a few loopholes for operators that might make the ban on roaming fees far from absolute.
If an operator can prove that they cannot recover their roaming costs, regulators in individual European countries can authorize “minimal surcharges” for “exceptional circumstances”. Also, the legislation left the door open for the operators to charge frequent roamers fees based on clear “fair use” policies. The idea is to prevent customers from buying service in one country and using it entirely in another country.
There are some signs that operators readily are willing to sacrifice the sacred cow of roaming for the sake of attracting more customers. In the U.K. 3 has eliminated all roaming surcharges in 14 countries. Some of my London colleagues at OpenSignal have told me that roaming policy was the sole reason they selected 3 over the UK’s other operators. In the U.S., T-Mobile has similarly set itself apart by offering customers SMS and limited data services at no extra charge while overseas. Some operators may be dragged kicking and screaming into flat-mobile-rate Europe, but others are going far more willingly.
Roaming wasn’t the only controversial subject tackled in today’s new law. As part of the package, the European parliament approved new net neutrality regulations that many critics claim do more to threaten a neutral internet than protect it. At issue were several amendments that Members of European Parliament shot down that would have banned a so-called “two-speed” Internet.