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Anger as EU keeps mobile roaming fees

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Mobile phone use at airport. Photo: Shutterstock
13:07 CET+01:00
A decision by EU governments not to end roaming mobile charges until the end of 2018 has prompted anger from consumer groups and EU politicians who had wanted the fees ditched this year.

"The Council is really disappointing 550 million EU citizens and is consciously holding back the development of the Digital Single Market," said Fredrick Federley, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is coordinator for the Liberal ALDE group on the industry committee.

"This is down to pressure from the mobile operators, who have had these charges as a milking cow for some time," he told The Local. 

Guillermo Beltrà, head of the legal and economic division at the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, was also frustrated.

“We are disappointed by the national governments’ lack of ambition to bring down once and for all one of the most important barriers to Europe’s Digital Single Market,” he said in a statement released to The Local. 

The group said governments had lacked the political will to take on telecom companies on their citizens’ behalf. 

“It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges,” said Beltrà. 

“The end of roaming has been in the making for a very long time, and this is something that telecoms have known and should be ready for. In fact, they are also to benefit from the new consumer demand that will emerge once roaming is abolished.”

The European Council, which represents the EU’s 28 member states, agreed this week that mobile phone users would be given a roaming allowance that allows cell phone use in other EU countries at domestic rates up to an as yet unspecified limit. Telecom companies would be allowed to levy roaming charges for any use beyond this limit, though at a lower rate than before. 

“We now expect the European Parliament to take a strong stance in the negotiations with the ministers for a final deal that will hopefully make roaming fees a thing of the past,” said Guillermo Beltrà. 

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly last year to end roaming costs by the end of this year. 

Gunnar Hökmark, a Swedish MEP, has long argued for roaming fees to be scrapped. He expects tough negotiations with national governments. 

“Some member states are defending national operators. Without naming any countries, some operators in the south are happy to get higher prices from users coming from the north,” he told The Local. 

He did however express some understanding for the delay. The creation of a pan-European network for telecom operators would ease the process of doing away with roaming fees, he said. 

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As things stand, domestic carriers pay their counterparts in other countries wholesale charges for foreign mobile use by their customers. 

Abolishing roaming charges without first fixing this glitch in the system would risk resulting in higher domestic charges in many countries, which is something operators and national governments want to avoid, said Hökmark. 

“The most productive outcome of the negotiations would be the creation of a European operator network" to review the system of wholesale charges.  

Roaming fees for calls and data have dropped sharply in recent years after the European Commission took steps to eradicate the sort of “bill shocks” that often greeted travellers returning home from other EU countries.

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