On September 5, 2016, the European Commission (EC) issued draft guidelines for the implementation of the end of roaming charges in 2017. However, following criticism from consumer groups, the guidelines have since been withdrawn. The EC had outlined a fair use policy to stop people from abusing the new rules to get the cheapest mobile deal in another European country through permanent roaming. The EC also tried to ensure there would be no negative impact on prices for consumers that exceed the limits of this policy. The original proposal stated that users would only be able to roam on domestic prices for a total of at least 90 days per year and for no more than 30 days at a time. Consumer groups have argued that the limits disregard the original promise of an end to roaming, which has seemingly prompted a U-turn from the EC.
Questions still remain around how zero-roaming regulation will work in practice
The EC's fair use policy stated that customers would have only been able to roam at domestic prices for at least 90 days a year and for no more than 30 consecutive days. These limits align with existing free-movement agreements in some member states that require citizens to register their residency if they stay for longer than 90 days per year. The aim was to prevent customers from buying SIM cards in countries where the prices are lower than at home and stop customers from permanently staying abroad on a home subscription. However, as consumer groups have pointed out, the guidelines ignored the original promise made by the EC in 2015 of a total end to roaming. The original proposal also outlined that those who work abroad but return home daily and connect to their home network would not be considered to be permanently roaming and therefore would not be included in the 90-day limit. This was seen as good news for citizens living close to borders and working in another member state.
For customers on mobile contracts with unlimited or very high volumes, the proposed guidelines explained that operators would be able to cap their usage. However, users would still be able to benefit from domestic prices for at least the average use by a customer on such a package. The average figures would have been calculated annually and made publicly available. In addition, to prevent prepaid subscriptions from being used solely for roaming purposes, operators could have set a minimum volume of domestic consumption before allowing customers to take advantage of roaming at domestic prices. Operators would have also been prevented from applying any limits on the quality of regulated retail roaming services that are consumed within the fair use policy.
Outside the fair use policy, operators would have been allowed to charge customers that exceed the usage limits, as long as they notified them before any charges were imposed. The EC had suggested for these to be no more than a wholesale roaming cap of €0.04 per minute, €0.01 per SMS, and €0.0085 per MB. Roaming fees across the EU have already fallen by 75% to meet charge caps of €0.05 per minute, €0.06 per SMS, and €0.20 per MB, ahead of their removal from June 2017. After receiving a lot of criticism, the draft proposal was withdrawn on September 8, 2016 at the request of President Juncker so that a new version could be drawn up.
Zero-roaming regulation has been an area that has been crying out for more regulatory clarification. The original guidelines should have cleared up some of the questions around how a no-roaming-fees structure will work in practice for consumers, especially those with unlimited plans. However, it left unanswered questions around the impact on the price of contracts overall. Inevitably, roaming traffic as a whole will see a rise in demand and usage is likely to exceed the average home use because customers often have more free time while abroad to use their phones. Therefore, operators would undoubtedly want to recoup the loss in roaming revenue, which could lead to a rise in the overall price of plans. With this in mind, the original proposal was tougher than operators may have expected because many had called for the minimum to be set lower than 90 days to avoid seeing such a dent in their roaming revenues. The operators will be even more concerned now that the proposal has been withdrawn.
"Europe's "no roaming charge" vision is blind to market realities," TE0003-000860 (July 2015)
"EU operators still see opportunity in international roaming," TE0007-000905 (May 2015)
"BEREC has a big task ahead in tackling IoT, OTT, and roaming," TE0007-001001 (March 2016)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation