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Mobile firms have no plans to bring back EU roaming charges, but a Brexit no deal could do just that

Tuesday, July 17th 2018 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Mobile providers have “no plans” to start charging customers for roaming in Europe after Brexit, but admit they don’t yet know what the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will be.

And experts say that in the event of a 'no deal' following the government's negotiations, the decision on whether to reintroduce charges may not be entirely in the hands of UK operators.

An EU ruling that came into force last year means it is illegal for operators to charge their customers an additional fee for sending texts, making phone calls or using data within the European Union.

Three was ahead of the curve, introducing inclusive roaming back in 2013, but thanks to the EU ruling, 2017 saw the UK’s other major players catch up and promote features with names like ‘Roam like at Home’.

But with the UK set to officially leave the Union in spring 2019, what impact will that have on our ability to check Facebook and post Instagram pictures while abroad?

The government’s recently-published Brexit White Paper says the UK will not be a part of the EU’s Digital Single Market but does propose a “digital relationship” that covers telecommunications and digital infrastructure.

While it makes no explicit mention of mobile roaming, the White Paper does talk of a commitment to “an open and liberalised electronic communications sector allowing for fair, equal and competitive access for UK and EU businesses to public telecoms services and network”.

'Excessive charges'

Three has already made it clear that it will continue to offer free roaming in the EU, with CEO Dave Dyson saying: “We’re committed to eradicating these excessive charges in Europe regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations and ultimately want to offer the same great service for every UK traveller.”

Mr Dyson also pointed out that Three’s Go Roam feature covers more holiday destinations than any other UK network: “We’ve continually added to our offering year on year and unlike the competition, it’s not just in the EU but across the world in places such as the USA, Australia and Singapore”

Luca Schiavoni, a senior analyst at Assembly Research, said the situation for other providers isn’t quite as simple, especially if the government fails to reach a deal regarding roaming charges.

Vodafone UK customers may be able to roam on other Vodafone networks such as in Spain

He said roam-like-at-home is likely to stay where operators can use the network of their corresponding affiliate in another country, giving the example of Vodafone UK customers roaming on Vodafone Spain’s network.

In this scenario, Vodafone would benefit from the multiple businesses it has across Europe and O2 would presumably be able to let its customers roam on the network of parent company Telefonica in Spain.

Mr Schiavoni said no UK operator would want to be the first to reintroduce roaming charges as it would risk upsetting customers. “However, internal competition is not the sole factor at play here,” he told Cable.co.uk.

“Once the UK is out, and the roaming regulation no longer applies, operators in EU countries will no longer have to comply with the wholesale price caps stated in the regulation. Roaming at the wholesale level will be entirely subject to commercial agreements again.”

'Buying power'

Mobile operators in EU countries may take the opportunity to charge higher rates to UK providers, said Mr Schiavoni, unless the UK provider has either a subsidiary they could use to host British roamers or sufficient “countervailing buying power” IE similar levels of inbound traffic.

“On balance, it is likely that UK operators will be able to offer RLAH-like deals to many destinations in the EU; however, there will be some cases in which I expect surcharges to come back on.”

As for the providers themselves, most are positive about the future of free roaming but are unwilling or unable to fully commit until the government’s Brexit negotiations are complete.

An EE spokesperson said: “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.

Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union. The future of mobile roaming depends on his negotiations with the UK government

“We are working closely with government on this and hope they will put consumers at the top of their agenda in the Brexit negotiations to help ensure that UK operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers.”

Vodafone said: “It’s still too soon to assess the implications of Brexit on roaming regulation, however, we expect competition will continue to drive good value for customers. We currently have no plans to change our roaming charges.”

A spokesperson for O2 said: “We’re committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel overseas.

'Engaged with the government'

“We currently have no plans to change our roaming services across Europe. We’re engaged with the government with regards to what may happen once the UK officially leaves the EU.”

A Tesco Mobile spokesperson said: “There are no plans to change free roaming in the UK for our customers but we are monitoring the situation and will of course inform customers if any changes are going to be made.”

There’s more positive news in the fact that new mobile providers are only just adding free roaming to their offering – something that would suggest the plan is to continue with the offer post-Brexit.

SMARTY, a SIM-only MVNO that launched last year on the Three network, announced the addition of inclusive European roaming just last week, alongside a pay-as-you-go system for those travelling outside the EU.

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