Some of Europe's biggest mobile operators have dodged the bullet for now, after it was revealed that the EU's three-year enquiry into roaming would be delayed.
The delay in the probe, first reported by the UK's Financial Times, means that UK and German mobile telecoms, such as mmO2, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, will escape the prospect of paying millions in competition fines in the short term. Although such levies were never guaranteed to be instituted by EU competition authorities, it was thought that Brussels had built a strong case against what is often regarded as the gouging of consumers on roaming charges.
Roaming refers to mobile phone calls originating or ending in a market outside of a person's home market. Prices for such calls are typically substantially higher than normal mobile calls due to the way calls are routed through foreign networks.
Te EU investigation, which covers all the mobile network operators in the UK and Germany, may not produce results until as late as August and the hold-up is due to European Competition Commissioner Mario Monti's difficulties in building a rock-solid case against the firms. It was back in 2001 that authorities raided the premises of many of the operators in the two countries, looking for evidence that the firms were artificially inflating prices.
For their part, the telecoms under scrutiny have insisted that their roaming prices are not excessive, although such denials have often rung hollow with consumers.
Spokespeople for the EU have so far declined to comment on the case or on the delay.
It has also been reported that operators may evade punishment altogether because in July the EU gains new regulatory powers in 18 telecom-related market segments that will make it easier for Brussels to influence or even override deals made by member states' telecoms watchdogs. This means that instead of fines being imposed by the EU Competition Commission, local telecoms regulators could be compelled to implement price caps and other tools to control the sector.
In February, when Monti and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen provided guidance on the future of telecoms regulation in Europe, the pair said that the European Commission would encourage national regulators to impose new rules on mobile operators. Of the 18 market segments named by the EC for national regulators to intervene, restrictions on international roaming and call origination and termination costs were listed as top priorities, alongside broadband rollout and local loop unbundling.