Que viva roaming (until 2020 and even further)

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Roaming surcharges within the EU should end one day, but we do not know when exactly. For the time being, European citizens will continue to pay roaming surcharges abroad at least until 2020 and even further, despite the fact that European medias have frequently reported, in the last months, about the imminent end of international roaming.

In April 2014 the European Parliament, amending the Single Telecom Market (“STM”) of Commissioner Kroes, proposed to definitively abolish roaming surcharges by end of 2015. The Parliament’s proposal was then submitted to the Council, i.e. the body that within the European Union represents the governments of the Member States, however an agreement was not found until now. A next meeting of the Council is scheduled for November 27, 2014, however most signals indicate that the national governments will just discuss about the progress of the negotiations, while no decision is expected to be taken.

In the meanwhile, there was a leak from the Presidency of the Commission, namely a letter sent by president Junker to all EU commissioners in which each of them was required “to examine all pending proposals in [your] area and to signal those which we should review together, for example because they have no realistic chance of being adopted in the near future, or because the degree of ambition achievable does not match the objectives sought.” Many observers have recognized that such kind of instructions will likely bring to the withdrawal of the STM proposal, including the roaming reform. In fact, many parts of the STM proposal are really controversial (net neutrality, spectrum) and also the roaming chapter is struggling to find a consensus. In addition, the entire STM proposal appears far from being able to establish a Single Market for telecoms, since the initial proposal of Kroes was weak and controversial, then it was drastically modified and down-watered by the European Parliament and the Council. Under such circumstances, and considering the letter addressed by the Presidency, the withdrawal of the STM proposal, including the roaming reform, appears quite likely.

If this will happen, roaming surcharges will continue to be regulated by Regulation 531/2012 (the so called Roaming III) providing for regulated caps (i.e. maximum level of prices that mobile operators may not exceed) until a review is made. It possible that the European Commission will start to work quite soon, by mid-2015. Since the new draft would require public consultation and opinions by other bodies, the Commission’s proposal is expected to be likely submitted to the Parliament and Council by mid-2016. The following legislative process with Council and Parliament should take at least 18 months year, which means that formal adoption may be expected – if we are lucky – by the end of 2018. I am saying that we need some good luck, because the legislative draft of the roaming reform may include also other subjects, like net neutrality, spectrum competition ecc, which may further delay negotiations and final adoption.

Should the new regulation adopted by end of 2018, the abolition of roaming will not be immediate, more likely a glide path from 12 to 24 months may be provided. Thus, roaming surcharges will likely continue to be applied until 2019/2020.

In addition, even in case of formal abolition, one could presume that substantial parts of international roaming will continue to survive in any case. In fact, the main stakeholders and Berec are currently discussing a mechanism named “fair use” whereby, whenever the international roaming will end, the abolition will only concern a predefined package of traffic (for example: 24 hors of traffic for voice, 1 Giga for data ecc). Should the communications exceed the fair usage package, then roaming surcharges will continue to apply.

To sum up, whatever the European institutions enthusiastically declare, the way to the end of roaming surcharges is still very long. The market could, however, find a solution before operators and regulators are able to propose something workable. Manufacturers such Apple and others may in the future offers data roaming packages at flat rate vai multi-carriers SIM or specific applications. Of course, it must be seen whether such providers will be able to negotiate affordable wholesale access agreements with mobile network operators and whether these offers may need special regulatory compliance. For sure, from now up to 2020 the market will invent something.

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