Wednesday

27th Mar 2019

Brussels clashes with UK and France on mobile phone rates

  • Brussels argues EU citizens should not pay unjustified extra charges when calling abroad (Photo: EUobserver)

A majority of EU member states have rallied behind the joint proposal by the UK and France on how to force mobile operators to cut charges for cross-border phone calls, with the European Commission suggesting this approach would lead to delays in real price cuts of several years.

EU transport ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (11 December) in principle supported a commission plan to introduce legislation to clamp down on charges for calling and receiving calls on mobile phones while abroad.

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However, the bloc is divided on whether or not to water down the proposal, with most countries voicing concerns over possible damage to the telecom business if regulations narrow down the space for competition and harm innovation and investment in the sector.

Several ministers also pointed out that the pressure for lower roaming charges could potentially spill over into higher prices of national calls - and so negatively affect citizens who do not travel a lot and use their mobile phones outside their home country.

But EU information society commissioner Viviane Reding insisted that it is primarily European citizens who would benefit from the plan as outlined by the EU executive.

"I know you have been lobbied before this meeting," she told the ministers ahead of the discussion, adding that while this pressure on governments was just minor on behalf of the consumer protection groups, they were lobbied "heavily by big market players."

Mobile operators have strongly rebuffed the commission's initiative, arguing that the regulation would harm the mobile services markets and dubbing Ms Reding as "populist commissioner."

The commission wants to see the cost of using mobile phones abroad to be cut by up to 70 percent to ensure that prices for roaming services within the EU are not unjustifiably higher than those consumers pay for calling within their own country.

According to a commission study, excessively high international mobile roaming charges currently affect at least 147 million EU citizens - 37 million tourists and 110 million business customers.

Which solution less bureaucratic?

The main point of division among the member states was whether to introduce price caps on both wholesale and retail roaming fees straight away and whether to give the mobile companies another chance to cut charges without EU regulation.

Most member states supported London and Paris in suggesting that the EU's new legislation should initially cover only wholesale fees that one operator charges another within the bloc.

Under the proposal, only those operators who would refrain from voluntarily cutting the roaming rates below an agreed ceiling within six months would then have to face EU cap retail prices.

The commission by contrast wants to introduce the cap retail tariffs straight away, in a bid to ensure that lower wholesale rates have a positive direct affect for European consumers.

On this particular issue, Brussels has the support of Germany, Estonia, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and Slovenia.

Commissioner Reding said that the states that insist on the six-month "sunrise clause" in fact argue in favour of a further delay of the roaming charges reduction, stressing that Brussels had called for years for voluntary action by mobile operators - with no real progress on their part.

"Those who want less red tape and eliminate administrative burdens cannot support the sunrise clause because it would create the opposite," she said.

Regional roaming-free blocs?

Meanwhile, Latvian minister Ainars Slesers highlighted a regional model between the three Baltic states pointing out that that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia introduced a rule of no extra charges for incoming calls when people move within the Baltic region.

Slovakia's transport minister Lubomir Vazny said that the Visegrad group - along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary - and possibly including Austria - has been also contemplating a similar regional approach.

"If the EU talks turn out to be too sluggish we could consider this way to push forward the issue," he told EUobserver.

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