Roaming is moving to the top of operator agendas

There has been an acceleration in moves by operators to address the thorny problem of voice and data roaming charges throughout the European Union, although there currently seems little likelihood that such efforts will stop the European Commission's Neelie Kroes from implementing her plans to abolish roaming charges completely.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging that operators are starting to look at alternative ways of dealing with roaming fees rather than continuing to bleat about how their revenue streams will be affected.

The abolition of roaming fees will indeed bring an end to what has been a very lucrative cash cow for operators. Yet by taking a proactive approach they could find ways of mitigating the impact and improving their relationship with consumers at the same time. Indeed, most EU consumers would probably cite roaming fees as one of the most irritating aspects of their mobile service. Many still turn off data roaming when travelling abroad. By encouraging users not to do this, surely this would benefit operator revenues by at least keeping users on their networks and not on some unknown Wi-Fi network in a foreign hotel?

While it is still pursuing the Connected Continent package that includes the plan to abolish roaming fees, the European Commission has welcomed what it sees as the positive moves being made by operators to tackle the issue head on.

"We're really pleased with the operator moves; it's what we've wanted all along and a sign that they know this change is coming," Kroes' spokesman Ryan Heath said. "Obviously we want complete abolition of roaming, but the French moves are putting them absolutely at the top of the class."

Heath is referring to announcements by Iliad's Free Mobile, Bouygues Telecom and Orange France about their plans to include roaming within national mobile plans.

In January, Free Mobile added Italy to the roaming cover bundled with its €19.99 per month national plan for smartphone users, with Germany also included from February. The company was quickly followed by Bouygues Telecom, which said it will offer inclusive data roaming "across Europe" within its Sensation mobile plans from Feb. 24. Orange then said it will offer two new bundled national and roaming services, Orange Jet Europe and Origami Jet Premium, from early February.

There are also some new and innovative examples elsewhere in Europe such as 3 UK's "Feel Like Home" roaming plan, and the national and roaming no-contract plan provided by Tele2's brand Comviq in Sweden.

Nevertheless, there is already a concern that the new roaming plans include far too many limitations in the small print, and could serve to confuse users to such a degree that they will stick to the familiar hotel Wi-Fi networks.

Emma Mohr-McClune, service director, global consumer services, at Current Analysis, has been particularly critical of what she sees as overly complex approaches to "free inclusive roaming plans", and said it remains to be seen how consumers will react to the new plans.

Meanwhile the European Commission is preparing for the final hearing of its Connected Continent package, and Heath stressed there is no delay to the plans, contrary to ongoing speculation.

"We wrote the proposal so that it COULD be implemented from July 1, 2014, but that would have been world record pace," he commented. "It is getting voted on in the Parliament plenary on April 2, and should be finalised in October, which means the start-to-finish of the proposal is 13 months, which is about as fast as it gets in the EU system."

Like it or not, roaming is set to change.--Anne