Operators under pressure to innovate as EC signals end of roaming fees

The European Parliament, Council and Commission reached an agreement this week to eradicate mobile roaming charges across the 28 member states of the European Union by June 15, 2017, and to require telecoms operators to treat all Internet traffic equally with no blocking or throttling of online content or services.

The agreement to abolish roaming fees and introduce net neutrality rules for the first time fulfils a long-held ambition of the European Commission within the framework of its Connected Continent legislation.

Reactions to the latest agreement have been varied, with organisations such as the GSMA saying that the rules are not sufficient to help Europe address the region's growth and competitiveness challenges and urging a "comprehensive review" of the telecoms regulatory framework and a reform of spectrum policies.

"To realise the vision laid down in the Digital Single Market Strategy, much more needs to be done," said Afke Schaart, vice president Europe at the GSMA.

The European Commission noted that this week's agreement forms only part of the plan to create a Digital Single Market, which is designed to put the EU on a more equal footing with Asia and the U.S. in terms of technology advancement.

"We still have a lot of work ahead of us to create a Digital Single Market. Our plans to make it happen were fully endorsed by heads of state and government last week, and we should move faster than ever on this," said Andrus Ansip, Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market.

For now, the new roaming rules in particular will have significant repercussions for mobile operators across the region.

Daniel Kurgan, CEO of international wholesale service provider BICS, said the impact on the European telecoms industry of eradicating roaming regulations will be huge "but also has the potential to usher in a new era of innovation and collaboration from all parties in the ecosystem."

Emma Mohr-McClune, service director, global consumer services at Current Analysis, said efforts by operators to bundle European roaming with national plans will now start to mean less, while having a strong and established global roaming partnership programme will mean more.

"Around 10 per cent of all smartphone plans in Europe today offer some level of 'inclusive roaming' as part of a higher-value plan. Some carriers may look to replace that with 'inclusive global roaming', whilst some challengers--notably Three Group--are already well on the path of making 'roam like home' propositions applicable to markets far beyond European borders," Mohr-McClune said.

She added that the competitive focus could switch to global roaming, "both as a challenger and a churn-control mechanism, and this will impact the way carriers think about engaging with high-spend, frequent traveller customers."

The abolition of roaming fees could also finally see the launch of new "roaming only" pan-EU mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), noted Kurgan from BICS, while Mohr-McClune added that the new measures could also encourage over-the-top (OTT) players to accelerate the launch of pan-European products and initiatives using a hybrid MVNO and Wi-Fi model.

In short, to compete effectively mobile operators will need to innovate, add more value to their LTE services and act more like OTTs such as Google and Facebook to compensate for lost roaming revenue, emphasised Mark Windle, head of marketing at OpenCloud.

"Internet companies and OTT players like Google and Facebook have been offering free, value-added services to their customers continuously, providing incremental updates at no extra cost. Operators must replicate this model and put more effort into innovation to increase and strengthen customer loyalty," Windle said.

For more:
- see the statement from the European Commission
- see this statement from the GSMA

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