Is the EU Roaming-free dream crumbling?

photo credit: Flickr | KT King

Greatest success of EU under threat as summer holidays arrive


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Though citizens of the European Union have been promised that they will live roaming-free as of June 15th, loopholes in the Regulation are being increasingly used by mobile operators to retain roaming charges a New Europe investigation has uncovered. Companies who can substantiate to national regulators that they are not able to recover their “actual or projected costs” of providing roaming services, can continue to impose surcharges to their clients for services consumed in the European Union (plus Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland). Though these exemptions are referred to as derogations and seen as temporary, they are granted based on market data and projections, thus if the company’s projections do not change, there will not be reason to not renew this exemption.

At least six countries have received applications from at least 11 mobile operators, causing what may become a domino effect that signals the beginning of the end for the dream of many EU-citizens to be able to travel without incurring surcharges in their bills. In at least three more countries, companies are finding creative ways to get around the regulation by new – domestic-only packages. Twenty of the thirty-one regulators did not respond to questions sent by email on Thursday before New Europe’s print edition deadline on Friday.

 In Lithuania, three companies with over 95% of the mobile market share (Bite Lithuania, Tele2 and Telia Lithuania AB) have seen their applications approved, leaving their customers with an increased communication cost when they take their summer holidays this year.

 Belgium has received two requests New Europe has confirmed, and, as of publication, accepted the application of VOO. The Belgian regulator, the Institute for Postal services and Telecommunications, declined to release the name of the second company while a decision remains pending.

 Applications were also received by the regulators of the Slovak Republic and Portugal; the regulators declined to release the identity of companies that have applied until a final decision is reached. Asked when a decision on the application in the Slovak Republic would be reached, the spokesperson for the regulatory authority for electronic communication cited article 6c4 of EU Regulation 2015/2120 which states “Within one month of receipt of an application pursuant to paragraph 2, the national regulatory authority shall authorise the surcharge unless the application is manifestly unfounded or provides insufficient information.”

 In Finland operators Elisa, Telia, and DNA applied for derogations to national regulator FICORA, while operators in Estonia have also reportedly been granted the exemption by the regulator in Estonia.

 A Telecompaper report on Poland’s mobile operators said that although the companies have introduced their new price lists, only Orange Poland is consistently applying the Roam Like at Home principles fully. The issue has reached political dimensions, with Civic Platform MP, Arkadiusz Marchewka, calling on the regulator, the UKE, to clarify the situation. So far the UKE has not officially commented on the prices presented by operators.

 Meanwhile, in Greece, the national regulator EETT, told New Europe that two of the leading providers,  Cosmote and Vodafone, will comply with the EU regulation, but will offering their customers cheaper packages for services consumed only within the territory. This will in effect act as an attempt to sidestep the spirit of the regulation. A similar approach has been taken by 3 in Denmark, who has also recently introduced domestic-only packages.

 In Ireland, 3 backtracked on initial plans to offer pricing not in line with the EU regulation, opting to follow the guidelines of the Body of European Regulators (BEREC), stating that operators should offer a minimum of 5GB of roaming data in the EU for customers paying €20 per month.

 As a consequence of the applications to regulators and their approval, counter to the promises made when “Roam Like at Home” was announced in 2015, some EU citizens will still face roaming charges when travelling within the European Union after June 15th.

 To try and push the spirit of the Roam Like at Home Regulation, European Commission Vice President for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, wrote to the heads of national regulators, and to the CEOs of the main operators in all EU countries, to stress that the regulation needs to be properly implemented – and on time – in order for all Europeans to see the benefit, according to his blog. Ansip’s blog post added, that apart from the exceptions described above, “A few operators have announced tariff changes that are likely not to be compatible with the rules, or are using the introduction of [Roam Like at Home] to raise domestic prices.” The Vice-President wrote that he finds this “disappointing”.

 New Europe asked the European Commission about the extent to which they have been monitoring the situation, and for a comment on the number of applications received by the national regulators. A spokesperson for the European Commission, said the commission is “fully aware of the state of play of implementation of the new roaming rules by operators in every corner of the EU.”

Press conference by Vice President for the Digital Single Market in the European Commission Andrus Ansip in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 1, 2016 Credit: New Europe / Alexandros Michailidis

Press conference by Vice President for the Digital Single Market in the European Commission Andrus Ansip in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: New Europe / Alexandros Michailidis

 The spokesperson added that, “we are positive about it,” pointing to the success that “After 10 years of EU legislation which has already led to a drastic drop of roaming prices we are finally fixing a market situation: From 15 June, every existing or new contract produced in the EU that includes roaming services, will become a Roam Like at Home contract by default” … “The end of Roaming charges for travelers in the EU is a success story and already a reality in several EU countries: for example Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Spain and the UK already have RLAH-compliant offers on the market, or operators have already announced them for 15 June or even earlier.” The spokesperson was referring to companies and packages already available in these countries that follow the Regulation and are already available or confirmed to become available ahead of the June 15 deadline.

 The Regulatory Authorities in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Cyprus told New Europe that no applications had been filed in their respective country as of their response. These operators were contacted on Thursday, 1 June. The German regulatory authority representative that spoke to New Europe on the phone, noted that companies “could in the future” apply. An employee of the Spanish was surprised with the question, commenting “no, we haven’t started yet”, and asking “how can they show that they are losing money?”

 Despite that these countries have not yet received any requests, surcharges for roaming can still impact residents of these countries in the future if operators file an application with their national regulatory authority at any time.

 After an initial Regulation in 2007 that set price caps for roaming, in 2015 the European Parliament and the European Council agreed to finally abolish roaming charges to those in the European Union who travel periodically. Under this agreement, customers would only be charged the domestic price of their plan, no matter where they are in the European Union, unless they exceed limits set out by a fair use doctrine.

 However, service providers were allowed an “out” to providing roaming without charge to their countries in Article 6 of the 2015 EU Regulation that created Roam Like at Home. Under this article service providers may submit an application to apply a surcharge if they are able to substantiate that they are not able to recover their “actual or projected costs” of providing roaming services. If their application is approved, service providers can then apply surcharges to recoup the costs of providing roaming services.

 According to the Commission, 490 out of 500 million Europeans will have access to Roam Like at Home compatible offers as of 15 June. However, despite this statement, customers will make sure to switch to a compatible offer if their operator has received an exemption. With some customers tied to one or two-year contracts, this may prove impossible.

“Commission experts, national regulators and consumer watchdogs are carefully watching market developments in all countries to make sure that the new rules are respected,” the European Commission reassured New Europe.

 For a change of scenery, summer is coming, and it is the first for European Citizens to enjoy one of the biggest successes of the European Union in its history: the abolition of roaming charges. If you are lucky enough to be in a country and have a subscription with a provider who has yet to apply for an exemption, it is advisable to take your holidays sooner rather than later; national regulators can take a maximum of one month to respond to an application.

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