Sunday

26th Jan 2020

Analysis

Roaming exceptions are necessary evil in imperfect EU

  • Commission: 'If you buy a SIM card in another member state with lower prices and you use it permanently in your member state, you are not roaming anymore' (Photo: Matteo Garza)

The centre-left socialist group in the European Parliament on Tuesday (6 September) appeared to accuse the European Commission on reneging on its promise to abolish mobile roaming surcharges.

In a message sent out a social media, they called a commission proposal, saying that roaming will be limited to 90 days a year, “complete nonsense”.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or join as a group

The truth however is somewhat more nuanced.

What happened?

In June 2015, EU officials from the commission, parliament, and member states, announced that they had reached a deal that would end roaming fees, something which they had promised years before.

However, the deal also included the possibility for telecommunications operators to introduce “fair use policies”, to prevent people from abusing the roam-like-at-home principle. Those consumers that go beyond a mobile subscription's fair use, could face additional costs.

On Monday, the commission published a proposal that contained the details of what such policies may look like.

“What we have done is fix some rules to avoid abuses,” commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt told journalists on Tuesday. The rules theoretically can still be vetoed by the EU parliament or member states.

She explained that 90 days is the “minimum … during which users fully benefit from the end of roaming charges”.

Consumers that use roaming beyond that period may face additional costs, which critics call roaming by another name.

But commission deputy chief spokesman Alexander Winterstein was quick to say the EU had fulfilled its promise on roaming.

“What we have promised is that when we travel across borders, they can take their phone with them and as of June next year they will not pay roaming fees anymore. This is a key message and this is what we have delivered, and this is what counts,” Winterstein said.

The GSM Association, the pan-European organisation set up in the 1980s to create standards for mobile communication, never defined roaming as having a limited duration.

But for the commission, it is understandable why it would want to make that distinction.

With the end of roaming fees a tangible example of the benefits of the EU, the commission is, not surprisingly, eager to hail it as a success story.

And as Vandystadt noted, most Europeans do not travel abroad to other EU countries for more than 90 days a year - or even half of that.

“Operators are not obliged to impose this 90 days minimum. They can offer unlimited packages including roaming,” Vandystadt added.

But some operators may not want to offer unlimited roaming, out of fear of going out of business.

The problem which the 90-days clause aims to address, goes far beyond the simple frame of whether the EU broke a political promise.

Digital single market?

It showed that the EU is still very far from a digital single market.

When you buy a book in another EU country, your one-time purchase does not greatly affect the local economy. But when you buy a mobile phone subscription in another EU country with the idea of using it in your home country, you may have a more lasting effect.

The text accompanying the fair use rules noted that there are “different pricing and consumption patterns” across EU member states.

“In such cases, the incentive to use very large volumes of traffic at domestic price levels while roaming on a permanent basis may increase, as the price differential vis-à-vis limited domestic offers may turn out to be greater than average.”

Put simply, citizens living in a rich member state may choose to buy a SIM card in a member state where the cost of products is much lower.

Let's take, as an example, Lithuania and the United Kingdom. According to Eurostat, communication is most expensive in the UK, and cheapest in Lithuania.

If substantial numbers of British consumers were all to buy SIM cards in much smaller Lithuania, and then go home to the UK demanding to use the cheaper subscription plan there, the mobile operators in Lithuania may decide to increase their prices, which would mostly affect Lithuanians.

European integration

It is one of the key challenges in European integration.

Politicians have started opening up markets for all EU citizens, before differences between the economies of EU member states and purchasing power have dissolved.

The option for mobile operators to apply an exception to the roaming ban, is a way to protect businesses in EU member states with lower purchase power.

It is not “complete nonsense”, but an unavoidable stopgap for the much bigger, systemic tasks policymakers face during the messy process of European integration.

No more roaming charges in EU

Major telecoms operators across all 28 EU states have scrapped roaming fees on data, text messages, and calls, as of Thursday (15 June).

News in Brief

  1. Catalan premier refuses to step down, despite ruling
  2. UK set to support new fossil fuel projects in Africa
  3. Leftists MEPs travel to visit jailed Catalan MEP
  4. Bulgaria may expel Russian diplomats over 'espionage'
  5. EU, China, others agree on WTO body to settle disputes
  6. EU Commission makes move against Poland on judges law
  7. Soros pledges $1bn for liberal universities
  8. Merkel: Germany unprepared for 2015 refugee crisis

Are EU data watchdogs staffed for GDPR?

The success of the new general data protection regulation (GDPR) will depend on whether data protection authorities enforce the new rules - which, in turn, will be at least partly determined by how many people they employ.

Eight countries to miss EU data protection deadline

The EU starts enforcing its general data protection regulation on 25 May - but Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia won't be ready. The delay will cause legal uncertainty.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. AI must have human oversight, MEPs recommend
  2. Second-hand cars flaw in EU Green Deal
  3. Why do EU arms end up in Libya despite UN ban?
  4. Brexit deal to be signed, as sides poised for tough talks
  5. Timmermans urges EU governments to tax carbon
  6. Vietnam sent champagne to MEPs ahead of trade vote
  7. China spy suspect had EU permission to work as lobbyist
  8. EU to unveil 5G 'toolbox' to tackle security threats

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us