EU's Reding gets tough on roaming

New law proposal to cap charges

As consumer grumbling grows over roaming call charges, the European Commission is flexing its muscles to force down international charges.

This is one of several points to emerge from Thursday's announcement by the EU's Viviane Reding that ERG, the European Regulators Group, has run out of patience with mobile operators who have failed to respond to the public outcry.

Reding, the commissioner responsible for the Information Society and Media, told the regulators' meeting in Paris she foresaw that some regulatory tasks could be merged with the same tasks of regulators in neighbouring EU countries. "It makes sense in my view that, for example, the regulation of high-speed networks does not halt at the national borders any longer."

The commission, said Reding, was committed to ensuring that Europe achieved its Lisbon objectives by promoting investment and competition. So everything was 'on the table' in regulatory terms as long as it was in line with these macroeconomic objectives, she said.

The proposed new laws on roaming charges are due to come into force in the second half of 2007, subject to approval from the European Parliament and national governments. If approved, the laws would be immediately applicable in all 25 EU member states and "would not require further transposition to become national law".

The rules now being proposed by ERG would not prescribe a specific "ideal" price for international roaming, but would require that international roaming charges were no higher than national roaming charges.

The proposed new regulation on international roaming could include further provisions aimed at making charges more transparent for consumers, or to facilitate authorisations for cross-border mobile offers, Reding said.

She said in spite of many warnings and policy initiatives, roaming prices remained unjustifiably high at the retail level even though competitive pressure may have brought down charges at the wholesale level.

In October 2005, the European Commission launched a website showing comparisons of EU roaming charges. This website, said Reding, showed that charges varied widely between operators in the 25 EU member states. The lowest roaming price - though not all operators publish figures - found was €0.20 for a four minute peak-time call made on a Finnish mobile contract while roaming in Sweden. The highest roaming price was €13.08 charged to a Maltese consumer roaming for four minutes in Latvia.

"Here, we got a clear indication that the market does not work," Reding said. "When I launched this roaming website in October, I told operators very clearly that this is the last time that I will stand on the sidelines. I announced that I would present an updated website after six months and that I would be prepared to take regulatory action if prices do not move substantially closer to a market-oriented level." She added: "I consider it the duty of the European Commission to ensure that citizens too can reap the benefits of the internal market."

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