Council agreement threatens EU roaming proposals, opponents say

National governments more than double MEP recommendations on wholesale roaming rates, as governments nod deal through with gritted teeth.

The latest installment of the EU roaming saga saw the national governments agree, through gritted teeth and clenched knuckles, to proposals that will see a EUR10 per Gb wholesale rate across the EU. This was over double the proposals made by MEPS – reflecting the concerns national governments had about lower fees hurting their internal markets.

Just in case you have not been following this closely – the biggest issue here is the structural imbalance in Europe between nations, for example between southern countries that get large numbers of inbound roamers in the summer but otherwise have scant usage, and northern counterparts that have relatively little inbound roaming but offer large bundles for not much cost.

Finland, for instance offers customers lots of data for not much money. With high wholesale rates, their customers roaming like home could see Finnish operators paying more in wholesale costs than they charge for retail. One result might be a rise in retail costs – which Finland is not keen on. Meanwhile, if the wholesale rate is set lower then the southern country – say Cyprus – has to build a network provisioned to peak demand that can deliver lots and lots of data to hungry northern tourists, but only be allowed to charge loss-making amounts for it on the wholesale market. 

The Council said: “The aim is to set the caps at a level that will help make the end of roaming charges sustainable across the EU, even though mobile use, travel patterns and price levels vary a great deal from one member state to another. To achieve this, the new rules aim to preserve incentives to invest in networks, and avoid distorting competition in both home and visited markets.”

The rules will see wholesale rates reduce over time, to just EUR5 per Gb by 2021. The EPP Parliamentary group had feared this result, warning the day before the Council meeting that several Member States are attempting to dilute its “unambiguous decision” to set much lower rates.

Viviane Reding, Member of the European Parliament and former Vice-President of the European Commission, said: “The law is clear: roaming charges must be abolished by summer 2017. Nevertheless, several Member States are attempting to dilute this unambiguous decision and to undermine competition within Europe. The average retail price in Europe is below € 3/GB,  Member States on the contrary would like to set the wholesale cap at € 10/GB. When wholesale prices are higher than retail prices, however, competition will collapse and retail prices are likely to rise as a result.”

Consumer group BEUC said the agreement could actually see the end of roam like home. Monique Goyens, the Director General of BEUC, said:

“Member States’ handling of this wholesale roaming reform is like playing with fire. In their effort to please their national telecom players they risk scuppering the long-promised end of roaming fees in June 2017.

Plenty of countries expressed reservations about the Council “compromise”, but said that in the interests of seeing some sort of agreement, they would not stand in the proposal’s way. This now goes to Parliament and the Presidency, with a June 2017 deadline to introduce roam like home to the market. Additionally, Commissioner Oettinger said that he also hoped to see progress on defining Fair Usage proposals – another sticking point in the proposals – over the next few days, prior to he next meeting of the Communications Committee.