After more than a decade of EU negotiations, Europeans will no longer pay mobile roaming surcharges when they travel out of their home country starting Thursday.
Or so they think.
“Eliminating roaming charges is one of the greatest and most tangible successes of the EU,” the EU institutions touted in a collective statement Wednesday.
In reality, some consumers will continue to pay roaming rates. Others might get far less of a license to roam than the European Commission intended.
Dozens of telecoms providers have applied for exemptions to the rules, allowing them to continue charging even marginal roaming rates if only temporarily, while others in countries including Poland refused to implement the rules according to EU demands. Some telecoms providers have threatened to ditch roaming services altogether, offering only domestic plans instead.
The Commission made a concerted effort this week to downplay these cases.
“We now see that operators are by and large implementing the rules,” said Anthony Whelan, a Commission telecoms expert, in a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday.
The Commission said that out of thousands of telecoms operators, only 36 applied for exemptions to the rules. And telecoms operators trying to flout the rules are an isolated case. The Commission said it will encourage their national regulators to quickly whip them into shape.
“Operators have had two years to prepare for the end of roaming charges, and we are confident that they will seize the opportunities the new rules bring to the benefit of their customers,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, said in a joint statement.
Part of that preparation involved a drawn-out negotiation over wholesale roaming rates, the prices telecoms operators charge each other when their customers use foreign networks while traveling. If telecoms stop charging consumers for roaming, then businesses were also expected to charge each other less to piggyback on each others’ resources.
Some telecoms, especially small ones, plan to follow the rules but are grumbling in the background about the Commission’s play to win consumers. They fear it will be bad for their bottom line once the rules apply and user habits actively change.
They are most concerned about data. The prices telecoms operators charge each other for mobile data are still far too high, many telecoms operators told POLITICO.
“Roaming data usage is likely to show significant increases,” said Massimiliano Parini, the head of CoopVoce, a virtual network operator in Italy. That could lead to significant losses, especially for smaller operators. “Customers currently show very low usage of data roaming because of fear of incurring in heavy surcharges.”
The pace of evolution in the telecoms market has long been an issue in the negotiations.
Plans to end roaming surcharges across the EU date back to 2004.
They were drawn up after many customers complained to their MEPs about shock bills: Returning from holidays abroad, people would find they owed thousands of euros for using their mobile phones to make calls.
Back then, consumers didn’t rely on mobile data, said Luxembourgish MEP Viviane Reding, the commissioner for information society and media at the time. During her term, she managed to negotiate a cut in the price of roaming rates by around 60 percent, she told POLITICO.