The 2015 roaming regulation may be seen as a milestone in bringing the European Union (and the European Economic Area) closer to the expected end of roaming charges imposed on Europeans who use roaming services while travelling across the EU¹ However, a major issue about the regulation has gone widely unnoticed. It is that the effectiveness of the roaming regulation, supposedly removing roaming charges, is subject to some limitations. Which ones are these and how likely are they to obstruct roaming charges from disappearing after 2017? (Featured Image © Pexels)
A Long Path Behind Us…
The newest regulation is not the sole one in the telecoms sector that has been adopted by the European Union legislative bodies. In fact, it is only a small part of a broader European telecommunication policy, known as the Digital Agenda for Europe, which dates back to 2005. It was aimed at using the potential of the digital market in the development of telecommunications in the European Community (EC), that could bring the benefits achievable solely after the creation of the pan-European market of services.²
Clearly, abolishing roaming charges constitutes an opportunity in itself. There is a proven correlation between the level of telecommunications development, wherein roaming charges are seen as a hindrance, and the level of economic growth.³ Up to date, the volume of the data roaming market has grown by 630% since 2007, while fulfilling the Single Telecoms Market could help increase the European GDP with up to 110 million EUR per annum.4 In 2005, the European Commission called upon the European Parliament to undertake measures aimed at limiting roaming charges applied to transnational calls.5 As a result, the first intervention was encapsulated in regulation 2007/717 that capped maximum prices for phone calls made and received while abroad. It was then followed by other legislative acts that extended the scope of regulations’ effect to short text messages (SMS) and data transmission.6
Cost of a call lowered by 56%, short text message by 45% and the cost of transmitting 1 MB of data by 95% between 2009 and 2014.
Undeniably, changes to the EU roaming regulatory framework have had a considerable effect on the retail and wholesale prices of roaming services. Data shows that the retail cost of a call lowered by 56% (0,43 to 0,19 EUR), short text message by 45% (0,11 to 0,06 EUR) and the cost of transmitting 1 MB of data by 95% (4,00 to 0,20 EUR) between 2009 and 2014.7
The Illusionary End of Roaming
The complete ‘end of roaming’ is to come into effect only on June 15th, 2017. Yet, starting from April 30th, 2016 there will already be a considerable reduction of the fees added to domestic prices for roaming services, taking us closer to the expected end of roaming charges. From this date onwards, operators will be able to charge users up to 0.05 EUR per minute of call made, 0.02 EUR per SMS sent, and 0.05 EUR per MB of data (excl. VAT) on top of domestic fees.8 Indeed, these retail costs of services are considerably lower than those at the start of EU legislative intervention in the roaming services sector. It is perhaps most visible on the example of Internet use – we will be paying ‘just’ 0,05 EUR for 1 MB in comparison to 4,00 EUR in 2009, which gives a 98,75% reduction in price.
However, it has been greatly neglected that the final end of the roaming charges to take effect in 2017 is subject to a considerable if. Whether the ultimate aim of eliminating the differences between roaming and domestic tariffs, as stated in regulation (EU) 531/20129, will be fulfilled is dependent on a major reform of the wholesale roaming markets.1o In this respect, the Commission has been obliged to conduct a review of the wholesale roaming market and is supposed to submit a legislative proposal based on the outcome of that review by June 15th, 2016.11 Accordingly, it has been noted that such a provision constitutes a major constraint in ensuring a due application of the regulation.12 The reason being the dependence on Commission’s punctuality and its effectiveness in finding necessary measures to enable the abolition of retail roaming surcharges by 15 June 2017.13
BEUC’s Director General Sonique Goyens said that the reform “is a mammoth task to achieve in just 13 months.”
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has already identified this provision as a limitation, calling the performance of the reform “an endeavour unlikely to be finalised in time”.14 So far, nothing has been announced about a legislative proposal that is to be presented in a few months by the Commission, and the Commission has so far only finished the phase of public consultations.15 All that may reaffirm BEUC’s Director General Sonique Goyens, words that the reform “is a mammoth task to achieve in just 13 months”.16 Yet, it seems that public opinion has instead followed the view presented by the European Commission:
“roaming charges will cease to exist in the EU as of 15 June 2017. Consumers will pay the same price for calls, texts and mobile data wherever they are travelling in the EU. Calling a friend when you are at home or in another EU country won’t make a difference on your bill.”17
This, however, is not that certain even if the reform of the wholesale roaming services market is performed duly.
What Holds Us Back
Even if the reform is somehow finalized in time, the regulation does not ensure a complete end of roaming charges. Operators will still be able to impose additional surcharges on consumers using roaming services.18 Firstly, due to a ‘fair use policy’ provision and, secondly, the possibility for an operator to apply for an authorisation to continue applying additional roaming fees on users.19
The ‘fair use policy’ is supposed to prevent “abusive” or “anomalous” usage of regulated retail roaming services by roaming customers. In essence, it means that the use of such services in a Member State other than that of your domestic provider for purposes other than periodic travel will still be subject to additional charges. The end of roaming fees will thus apply only to those travelling temporarily to another country within the EU.20 If you are wondering what temporarily means, the answer is: it has not been clearly regulated yet.
The end of roaming fees will thus apply only to those travelling temporarily to another country within the EU.
Moreover, operators could also be exempted from ending the application of additional charges. In case a roaming provider is not able to recover its overall costs of providing regulated roaming services, it may be allowed to continue surcharging consumers.21 National regulatory authorities, separate for all Member States, will rule whether such an application is in accordance with the rules set by the Commission.22 These rules, however, have not yet been enacted. Certainly though, in both of those exceptions to the abolishment of roaming charges, it will be up to the Commission to set exact conditions through adopting the so-called implementing acts to the Regulation 2015/2120, meaning acts that provide implementation measures to a EU regulation.
No matter how much the newest regulation brings us closer to the ultimate goal of fully abolishing roaming charges applied to roaming users, we are not there yet. There are too many uncertainties and loopholes in the regulation to firmly state the EU has finally removed one of the main constraints to fulfilling the Digital Single Market. Yet, the regulation does give hope that we might be on the right track to concluding a no-roaming Europe.