20th Mar 2018

EU redoubles attack on roaming charges

  • SIM cards and related phone calls can bought in Latvia for a sixth of the price in Ireland and a fifth of the price in France (Photo: Karl Baron)

After an embarrassing U-turn last week, the European Commission has proposed to end phone roaming charges by June next year. But "abusive" clients are still to pay.

The proposal, unveiled in Brussels on Wednesday (21 September), said roaming charges are to be abolished by 15 June 2017.

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  • Ansip (l) said there was no better option than the "stable link" principle, despite new red tape (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

But phone firms can impose charges of €0.04/min per call or €0.01/SMS if the client does not have “stable links” to the place where the SIM card came from.

Wednesday’s proposal comes after a fiasco, last week, when the commission published a different text, then retracted it while under fire.

That proposal was to limit free roaming to 90 days a year, prompting complaints that the EU had failed to keep its promise to abolish charges.

The uproar came at a time when EU institutions are currying favour with the general public in the wake of Brexit and of accusations that they are out of touch.

Two commissioners on Wednesday defended the new ideas.

Andrus Ansip, an Estonian, and Gunther Oettinger, a German, who share the digital markets portfolio, said details on how surcharges apply would be decided by member states and telecoms firms further down the line.

“There’s a need for new algorithms to figure out when there’s abuse and when there’s normal behaviour, but it’s too early”, Ansip said.

Wednesday’s “stable links” principle means that if a client has a “frequent and substantial presence in the member state of the roaming provider” then they can roam as much as they like for free.

Ansip and Oettinger gave examples of what it meant.

Oettinger said that if you lived in, for instance, Vienna but worked every day in Bratislava, that would constitute a stable link to Slovakia and would entitle you to free roaming on a Slovak SIM card in Austria.

He said that if you lived in Dublin and used a cheap Latvian SIM card to call Berlin then that would be abuse and justify surcharges.

Ansip used metro ticket and beer analogies.

He said it would be popular to let people use metro tickets bought in one EU city in all EU cities, but unless there were safeguards, scammers could mass-buy cheap tickets and sell them abroad.

He said it would be wrong if a German was, for instance, entitled to drink limitless amounts of beer in Sweden at cheaper German prices.

“Member states aren’t the same [in economic terms], therefore we have to avoid abuse”, he said.

“Everybody can understand it’s not fair”.

In terms of nitty gritty, Wednesday’s text said that if a phone firm detected abusive behaviour it had to “alert” the client of its intention to apply surcharges. If the client said he did nothing wrong, then the national telecoms regulator was to settle the dispute.

The commissioners admitted this would create red tape.

Ansip also admitted it was not easy to communicate the new rules, saying it would be “a terrible mistake” if people thought they had to “ask the commission’s permission” to get free roaming.

The proposal is subject to change prior to final adoption in December.

With the clock ticking until the June 2017 deadline, Ansip indicated that it might be hard to get agreement by member states because there were “blocking minorities” formed by EU countries “from the south and from the north”.

“This is not a very promising situation”, he said.

In a sign of the EU mood, the centre-right EPP group, the largest in the European Parliament, welcomed the new draft on Wednesday.

The liberal Alde group also “congratulated” the commission. Its leader, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, said Juncker was right to have “quickly” scrapped the 90-day roaming cap model.

Beuc, a consumers’ rights group in Brussels, said phone users should not be put under blanket surveillance as though everybody was out to cheat.

It also said there would be no roaming problem in the first place if the EU overhauled the telecoms wholesale market so that “phone companies should not be allowed to charge each-other overly expensive fees” for services.

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