Treaty of Roam: No-deal Brexit mobile bill shock

As for the Big 4 UK mobile firms, there's a first mover disadvantage

The UK's Ministry of Fun* has introduced draft legislation enabling UK operators to charge roaming fees for calls and data inside the EU, should the UK crash out of the EU (and the larger EEA) next month.

Labour Tom Watson MP called it a "Tory Tourist Tax". But that doesn't mean it will happen. So will it?

A draft statutory instrument ("Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019"), highlighted by HuffPo, was published (PDF) this week tweaking the UK law to revoke EU legislation on roaming surcharges and termination rates.

The draft SI would revoke regulations setting maximum mobile termination rates across the European Union as well as those which harmonise roaming rates across the bloc (see page 4 of the PDF for an explanatory note).

Roaming charges inside the EU began to be regulated in 2014, and were scrapped altogether in 2017.

Last September the government set out its policy on the prospect of roaming charges in the event of a failure to introduce a withdrawal agreement.

"In the event that we leave the EU without a deal, the costs that EU mobile operators would be able to charge UK operators for providing roaming services would no longer be regulated after March 2019. This would mean that surcharge-free roaming when you travel to the EU could no longer be guaranteed. This would include employees of UK companies travelling in the EU for business," the government stated at the time.

“However, the government would legislate to ensure that the requirements on mobile operators to apply a financial limit on mobile data usage while abroad is retained in UK law. The limit would be set at £45 per monthly billing period, as at present (currently €50 under EU law). The government would also legislate, subject to Parliamentary approval, to ensure the alerts at 80 per cent and 100 per cent data usage continue.”

Of the big four MNOs, all four told us they have "no plans" to reintroduce EU roaming charges in the event of a No Deal exit. But only Hutchison's Three UK has categorically vowed not to reintroduce roaming charges.

For example, coy Vodafone told The Reg: "It's too soon to assess the implications of Brexit on roaming regulation, however, we expect competition will continue to drive good value for customers."

While EE told us: "EE customers enjoy great value products and controls offering inclusive roaming in Europe and beyond, and we don't have any plans to change these offers. We are working closely with government on this and hope Brexit negotiations will help ensure that UK operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers."

The dilemma, as the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones has pointed out, is the risk of going first.

MNOs could generate goodwill by maintaining their existing reciprocal deals with continental operators. Which in some cases are one and the same. Vodafone is the UK's one true global player, with subsidiaries in a dozen EU member states (plus Turkey) and partner networks in over 20 more, while Hutchison's Three operates networks in Ireland, Italy and Austria. Telefonica's O2 is Spanish-owned, with its UK arm being one of four wholly or partly owned networks.

The document is one of a flood of draft SIs published as the end of the Article 50 period approaches. The government has already published 167 this year – more than it did in the entire year of 2016. ®

* The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

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