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At last: EU slashes mobile roaming fees

Just 12 months until things get crazy

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From today the EU cap on roaming plunges down to €0.45 (38p) per MB, and €0.24 (21p) for a minute's conversation, but in another 12 months the very concept of roaming will change forever.

The drops represent the first enforced data tariffs, although the EU has mandated drops in the cost of voice calls and SMSes since 2009.

The EU caps roaming rates across the union of member states by requiring all operators to offer at least one tariff below (or equal to) a rate set by Brussels.

That rate drops every year, so from today the price of data goes from 56 to 38 pence a MB and outgoing voice from 23 to 21 pence. Next year there will be a similar dramatic drop - to €0.20 (17p) per MB and €0.19 (16p) a minute for an outgoing voice call - but one overshadowed by the arrival of the "Alternative Roaming Partner".

ARPs become possible from 1 July 2014, but right now there's not a single European network operator fully prepared for the fundamental change to signalling, routing and billing which will be needed. Not to mention the enormous job of customer education which will be necessary if the whole thing isn't going to be a colossal waste of money.

The idea behind ARP is that the end user can select an alternative operator to use when roaming, and decide how that roaming connection operates. So a customer of, say, Vodafone, might decide to make newly established Vulture Travel Comms their roaming partner.

As soon as that customer leaves the UK to travel within the EU, that customer will be in a billing relationship with Vulture Travel Comms, despite the fact that their traffic will be carried by Vodafone's roaming partners and the authentication will be carried out by Vodafone as usual.

If that were not complicated enough, the rules require that all calls be routed through Vulture Travel Comms so they can cheaply connect and provide value added services, so Vodafone has to open both signalling and call routing to make it all work.

The end customer will then be asked if they'd like "Local Breakout". Users must be able to select this option, even if they've no idea what it is and wouldn't want it if they did.

Mobile data, at the moment, is all routed through the home network, so if one is with Vodafone UK then all traffic is routed back to the UK and one's IP address comes from Vodafone. Local Breakout changes that, routing data as a Wi-Fi hotspot would, and so emerging into the public internet within the country wherein one roams (and roams).

How does this impact the UK's mobile porn filters, or Internet Watch Foundation list? Nobody knows, but the industry has just under a year to get it all sorted out.

What's most likely is that almost no one will bother selecting an ARP, and when they do it won't work properly because of a rushed implementation. So the changes will result in lots of money for telecoms integrators and a handful of ARPs going bankrupt shortly after launching, and without anyone noticing.

All of which should restore the EU's reputation for creating hugely bureaucratic systems which serve no one but those who build and maintain them. But until then we have another year of cheap roaming to enjoy, thanks to the uncharacteristic simplicity of the EU mobile caps. ®

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