Roaming sans Frontières

Aug 16, 2013

The EU telecoms commissioner has long been on the backs of the region’s Communication Services Providers (CSPs) over issues such as Termination Rates and Roaming pricing. In her time in charge, Viviane Reding was the one who took the incumbents to task over Termination Rates and since 2010 it’s been Neelie Kroes who is the driving force on Roaming charges. Though termination rates were a big deal within the telecoms industry, it never really made the headlines in the wider news and media. However, with tales of roaming ‘bill shock’ hitting the mainstream press every week, EU roaming regulations are now a much higher profile issue.

Neelie Kroes’ vision is for an EU without telecoms borders; a single level playing field where consumers and businesses can roam seamlessly across the region and not be charged a penny more for the privilege. Lots has been written about how CSPs will look to recover the lost roaming revenues in other areas, and I’m not going to debate that here. What concerns me more is how in reality CSPs can make this into a truly seamless experience?

A recent experience with my own CSP’s systems and processes highlighted just how much effort and investment may be required to make this fit the EU commissioner’s vision. Whilst on holiday in Spain I became locked out of my voicemail. I contacted customer services to explain the problem and ask for a voicemail PIN reset – surely a straightforward (and regular) request?

Well apparently for ‘security reasons’ this could only be done when I returned to the UK. What?! At this point I’d already confirmed my identity by providing the first and fourth digits of my account PIN, given my full name, date of birth, address and postcode, how much more secure would it be if I called them from the UK? And in the meantime, I was left to ponder the urgency of two new voicemail messages with no way of retrieving them for another week.

This seemed to be not so much a security issue as a systems and processes issue. But when moving to an EU without telecom borders, just how many of these issues will the CSPs face? My provider is one of the largest in the world, with vast resources at their disposal and operations across much of Europe and many countries beyond. What chance have the smaller regional players and independent CSPs of providing this seamless experience?

Due to the regulatory regimes that have evolved over many years, the Telecoms industry is inherently defined by its borders. Neelie Kroes is endeavouring to dissolve these boundaries, within Europe at least, but there’s a lot more to it than just doing away with roaming charges. What about all those handy shortcodes you dial to pick up Voicemail or call Customer Services? If you’re a large multi-country operator you may have this working in your affiliated operations, but achieving this across the whole of the EU will be a technological nightmare.

Is the inevitable conclusion to this an EU wide licensing regime? And scrapping international dialling charges with Europe? And as a subscriber living in the UK will I also be able to walk into a dealer outlet in Spain or France for customer service and they will have access to my full account details on an EU-wide CRM system?

I could go on…

Though the EU commissioner should of course be ensuring fairness and the best value for the consumer, I don’t believe that abolishing roaming charges is the way forward. Such a heavily regulated environment only plays further into the hands of the over-the-top service providers who are free to operate on a global level and charge their customers as they please.

As a frequent traveller, I am quite comfortable with the idea of paying a bit more for a roaming service that works well. In fact one of the reasons I am with my current service provider is because they have arguably one of the most comprehensive roaming networks in the industry (voicemail PIN issue aside!). Equally I know many people who would jump at the opportunity to cut their summer holiday roaming bill to zero given half a chance.

So why not create a regulatory environment which supports both? Rather than forcing all EU operators to scrap roaming charges altogether, we need a structure that encourages investment by allowing operators to charge a premium for a higher value roaming experience but at the same time enables the introduction of ‘no frills’ providers who can provide the low-cost experience. Sound familiar? The competitive tension between the two should result in improved services and better value for money for all.

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