After 12 hours of tense negotiations, EU negotiators agreed at 3am on Tuesday to impose a minimal cap on mobile phone roaming charges for calls, texts and data.
The so-called Telecoms Package has been in trouble for months, but – acting on behalf of EU member states – the rotating EU Council Presidency, under Latvia, pushed hard for a deal before it hands over the baton to Luxembourg on Wednesday.
However, to get a general agreement to outlaw roaming charges, negotiators drastically watered down net neutrality rules.
All roaming surcharges for travellers in the EU, whether for calls, texts or data, will be completely abolished from 15 June 2017. MEPs had wanted to kill roaming charges by the end of 2016, but – after a lot of resistance from national ministers – agreed to a compromise.
Some hailed the move as a victory for sun-worshippers consumers. “Finally the end of rip-off roaming charges in Europe is firmly in sight. From Riga to Rome, two years from now holidaymakers will be free to use their phones freely wherever they are in the EU. This shows how being in the EU means we can deliver a fairer, cheaper deal for British consumers,” said the sole Liberal Democrat MEP, Catherine Bearder.
The GSMA, representing the interests of mobile operators, said that the move would bring regulatory certainty but warned that more needs to be done in the planned overhaul of broader telco rules next year, including spectrum issues.
“The EU should aim to quickly modernise and, wherever possible, reduce regulation in the sector, taking into full account the increasing competition that is emerging from non-traditional sources,” said Afke Schaart, the GSMA’s European vice president.
From next April, roaming fees will be capped at €0.05 per minute for calls, €0.02 for text messages and €0.05 per MB of data. Under the agreement, mobile operators will be able to apply a “fair use policy” to prevent abusive use of roaming – so you can’t just sign up to a cheap Maltese deal if you live in the UK.
According to the official press release, the agreement also guarantees “strong net neutrality rules protecting the right of every European to access Internet content, without discrimination.” Yet activists are unconvinced by this bit of spin.
Even EU Digi Commissioner Günther H-dot Oettinger described the text as offering “pragmatic” net neutrality rules.
“The EU institutions have agreed on a text that authorises the establishment of slow lanes and fast lanes through exclusive and restrictive commercial deals between internet access providers and service providers. With rules protecting access to the internet and others handing over the future of the internet to telcos, it will be up to courts to decide whose interests prevail,” said Estelle Massé at digital rights group Access.
Although the main text of the law has been agreed, there may still be room for manoeuvre, as national ministers must ratify the text and it must also pass a vote in the European Parliament. ®