EU roams into confusion on roaming charges

Alan Burkitt-Gray
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The European Commission is rethinking its plan to limit its ban on roaming charges after consumer protests

The European Commission is rethinking its plans for roaming charges across the 28-nation European Union (EU) after consumer protests about last-minute revisions to the policy.

The Commission is clearly in confusion after consumer lobbyists spotted an attempt to limit the abolition of roaming charges to 90 days a year. Previously the Commission, the Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, had given the impression that roaming charges would be abolished completely from 15 June 2017.

First hint of the change came in a bland statement on Wednesday from

Andrus Ansip, Commission vice-president in charge of the digital single market, and Günther Oettinger, commissioner for the digital economy and society. “Getting rid of roaming charges is one of the best achievements of the European Union in the last few years, and a cornerstone for building the digital single market,” they started.

More than half-way down the self-congratulatory statement they slipped in an unexpected revision.

“Those of us who travel do so on average for 12 days per year,” they wrote. “But the Commission goes much further by abolishing roaming charges for at least 90 days per year, much more than the average time that a European is roaming with their phone. So in practice these charges will disappear for the vast majority of us. 99% of European travellers are covered.”

This was the first indication of any modification of the previous all-encompassing rule. As consumer groups read and digested the statement, the Commission put out a short 15-word comment on Thursday. It read simply: “The roaming regulation foresees the possibility for an operator to apply a fair use policy.”

By Friday morning the Commission had withdrawn this move, which appears to have been inserted into the regulation because many operators worried about arbitrage – the idea that consumers and business people could take out phone subscriptions in low-cost countries such as Austria or certain Baltic states and use their phones throughout the EU, paying their national rates.

“The Commission’s proposal this week was a let down,” Guillermo Beltra of the consumer group BEUC told “After years of saying it would end roaming charges, it pointed millions of eager consumers to the fine print … Consumers want the real deal.”

Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told the website: “When the European Parliament and the Council agreed to the Commission’s proposal to abolish roaming charges, they asked the Commission to define measures to prevent roaming services from being used for other reasons than periodic traveling.”

Ansip and Oettinger said earlier in the week: “Why did the Commission put forward the 90 days minimum? Very simple: We have to strike the right balance. We want to abolish roaming charges for people who travel. Without a few safeguards to avoid abuses – safeguards that the European Parliament and Council have asked the Commission to specify – network quality and investments in new capacity in some countries may suffer as people could opt for different territorial operators, and the domestic mobile prices might go up as operators would try to compensate losses.”

They added: “Those who travel to and from work, crossing borders every day, are not concerned by the minimum of 90 days.”

Except that they are. There are many people who cross the EU’s internal borders almost daily: those who live in Sweden and commute daily across the Øresund bridge to Copenhagen in Denmark – or people to work in other border cities, such as Bratislava, Vienna and Lille. Even Berlin is only 60km from the Polish border.