Roaming in the gloaming?

According to a plan that has been leaked by an naughty apparatchik at the European Commission (EC), Neele Kroes, the Commissioner for all matters digital, is determined to put an end to the lucrative roaming charges so beloved of Europe's mobile operators and so despised by subscribers.

Ms. Kroes has received avalanches of phone calls, letters and emails from consumers complaining about the high rates charged to subscribers for using a mobile while 'roaming' around Europe and has decided to act.

The Commissioner, who has frequently described roaming charges as a "cash cow" for the operators and "a disproportionate irritant for travellers", says the operators have had a fine old time of it to date but now things are going to change.

Next Wednesday, (September 11) the EC will endorse a plan for a 'single telecoms market' in Europe. it will then pass to the European Parliament for final approval - and that is certain to be given.

Amongst the provisions outlined in the single telecoms market documentation is one that will strike fear into the hearts of Europe's mobile operators. It is that the EC will "guarantee common high levels of consumer protection across the Union, including measures to end mobile roaming surcharges".

Over the years operators have been forced to cut what were evidently and undeniably excessive roaming charges but Ms. Kroes obviously believes these haven't been anywhere near deep enough. What particularly irritates her is that subscribers travelling within Europe are routinely surcharged for the privilege of using an in-country local network owned and operated by the self-same company with whom they are subscribers back at home.

After endless bad publicity about 'bill shock" and overcharging on the part of mobile operators the length and breadth of the EU, measures have been put in place to compel them to inform subscribers if, whilst moving around the EU, the amount they spend on another network exceeds €50. It is a safeguard of sorts, although throughout the summer the media was full of stories about massive bills being run up by subscribers who do not understand the small print of data roaming tariffs and, when they get back home find themselves landed with bills for thousands of euros because they watched a couple of episodes of a favourite TV show on a 3G handset.

From 2014 the EC wants mobile users to be able to select other service providers for a voice calls, data calls and messaging if the rates charged by their existing operators are more expensive. Subscribers would be able to swap network operators at will and without the ned to change numbers or to buy a new SIM card.

The draft legislation says, "When parties to collective roaming agreements offer to all their customers by default roaming tariffs at the level of domestic tariffs, the obligation of domestic providers to enable their customers to access voice, SMS and data roaming services of any alternative roaming provider should not apply".

An official speaking for Neelie Kroes said, "We are committed to putting in place a method that pushes roaming out of the market. So very much a case of "gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may" for Europe's mobile operators.

And they are going to be very angry indeed about having such a easy and fantastically lucrative source of cash taken away from them, There will be protests and lobbying but Steely Neelie will get her way. Currently she is proffering operators a carrot; letting it be known that if they 'voulunteer' to end roaming charges they will face only 'light touch' regulation going forward.

But, of course, Neelie also has a big stick with which to belabour the recalcitrant.

The implicit threat is that if the operators don't voluntarily do what she wants them to do, she will push for the creation of a single European regulator with power of over all member states and all mobile companies operating in Europe.

For Vodafone, Telefonica and the like this is a nightmare scenario and it is interesting to note that the current proposals before the European Parliament stop short of the creation of such a powerful office and, of course, the mobile companies would much prefer to continue to deal with national regulatory bodies rather than an overarching Europe-wide organisation.

Operators will also be concerned that the new measures and the creation of a Europe-wide single market in telecoms will inevitably lead to consolidation and the disappearance of some brands and companies.

The mobile companies worry that the EC thinks there are too many of them offering services across the EU's 27 member states and that the sheer number of them act to fragment rather than unify the marketplace and and prevent the investment in infrastructure that will be needed to cope with the huge and ongoing rise in the amount of Internet traffic flowing over Europe's metworks.

Commenting on those fears an anonymous EC spokesperson said, “There are around 100 operators in Europe and only four in the US. That is not sustainable if we’re going to have a single market and investment. Consolidation is not the aim [of the new regulations]. The aim is a single market, but if it means we get fewer, stronger operators, that’s good.”

It just goes to show that just because you are paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

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