As the EU cuts data roaming rates, a-roaming we will go

Pretty much everyone these days has a horror story or two to tell about colossal roaming bills following a trip abroad. I have several: the £60 ($91) charge for one brief phone call from Hong Kong to the UK; the almost £4 charged per each of the surreptitious and slightly panicked texts I exchanged with the organiser of a conference I was chairing in South Africa (with me roaming via the UK) as speakers failed to show up; the £20 phone call to the UK while on holiday in France. I could go on.

These events all took place some years ago, and before the real "bill shocks" that came with data roaming. I have since wised up and use alternative methods of communication (read Wi-Fi) while abroad, particularly for data. However, for those of us in the European Union, calling and browsing within the EU is getting cheaper all the time.

The European Commission has been taking a staggered approach to reducing roaming premiums on both voice and data services, and the next stage is due on July 1 when data price caps will be cut by 36 per cent to 45-euro cents ($0.59)  per minute ,and the cost of making a call by 17 per cent to 24-euro cents per minute. The next cut will be made on July 1, 2014, when data price caps will be reduced to 20-euro cents per MB. The second part of the reform from July 2014 will also be to force operators to decouple their roaming tariffs from their domestic tariffs to provide greater choice and flexibility for consumers, and open the door to a new wave of MVNOs offering cheaper roaming deals.

But hold on--isn't the plan now to abolish roaming charges in the EU? If so, how does that tie in with the existing schedule? EU digital chief Neelie Kroes has been calling for charges to be abolished starting next year as part of a package to be delivered by Easter. Will this then render obsolete the July 2014 deadline for the next reforms?

"A very good question," acknowledged Ryan Heath, spokesman for Neelie Kroes at the European Commission. "The 2014 plan stays in place…The new plan would amend the existing regulation rather than write a new one, and will be presented as a part of an overall package of measures for delivering a telecoms single market in early September."

Heath explains further: "It is technically, but virtually impossible, to have a new system in place for July 2014, and there are three layers of political votes that are needed before that could happen. And any new system has to avoid regulatory arbitrage/the collapse of 26 telecoms national industries…so the very strong likelihood is that you can only have a new system in place [starting in] 2015, and it will have to be quite sophisticated to work effectively."

So a utopia of no roaming charges in a single market for telecoms is not really as close as might have seemed, and to be honest, did any of really expect it to happen that fast?

Further, LTE roaming also appears to be on its way, and this is set to add a layer of commercial complexity that will further delay a borderless telecoms market with no roaming charges.

According to a report from Telecoms.com at the recent LTE World Summit in Amsterdam, Tommy Ljunggren, vice president of system development at TeliaSonera said: "Solving the technical part of roaming is easy, it's the commercial part that slows things down."

During a panel session on LTE roaming, Ljunggren said it can take between four and six months to roll out one roaming agreement. Reaching a point where operators are able to treat Europe as a single roaming market will take several years at least, reported Telecoms.com.

Operators are certainly not in favour of capping or abolishing premiums on roaming because they stand to lose a great deal of revenue. Kroes doesn't seem to want to hear their complaints that without such revenue they will find it harder to invest in new LTE networks and services.

Speaking personally as a consumer, I have no objection to paying a reasonable roaming premium to help finance spectrum acquisitions and LTE rollouts. To me it's like a form of tax that will enable me to benefit from better services further down the line. However, the emphasis has to be on reasonable and transparent; milking the consumer is no longer an option in the era of Wi-Fi and over-the-top apps. We have all wised up to that.--Anne

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