On the 19 June 2020, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the review and extension of its "Roam Like Home" regulations ahead of the current rules expiry on 30 June 2022. Roam Like Home directly affects mobile services retailer or mobile network providers both in the UK and across Europe as it does consumers who holiday in Europe and pan-European businesses that often travel through Europe on business (pandemic permitting). Any changes to the rules could have a financial impact on all parties involved.
What are the current Roaming Regulations?
The European mobile roaming rules, commonly known as Roam Like Home, came into effect on the 15 June 2017 with the implementation of Regulation (EU) 531/2012 on roaming on public mobile communications networks within the Union (as amended by the Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 on open internet access and Regulation (EU) 2017/920 regarding rules for the wholesale roaming market (together, the Roaming Regulations). These set out the rules on mobile roaming in the EU and effectively abolished roaming charges for people using their mobile services while travelling in the EU.
Prior to the regulations coming into effect, roaming charges in the form of connection charges were added to the cost of calls, texts and data usage. Over a 10-year period from 2007, the Commission worked to reduce, and eventually end, roaming charges in the EU.
Cited as "a true European success story" by the Commission, from June 2017 people travelling to other EU countries would pay their national price for call, texts and data usage. For many, while travelling in the EU/EEA, this meant that calls and SMS texts to any EU/EEA number are included in domestic bundles with no extra charge and no additional charges levied on data usage.
A fair use provision was introduced to ensure that customers could not exploit the fact that mobile charges are lower in some EU member states compared to others. To avoid the risk of people exploiting this, mobile operators can include conditions to prevent permanent roaming or anomalous or abusive use of wholesale roaming access.
What is the focus of the consultation?
The Commission believes that the Roaming Regulations have been an overall success, with many people across the EU enjoying roaming at no extra cost. However, the regulations in respect of Roam Like Home are only in place until 30 June 2022 and the Commission is eager to prolong these rules beyond this date.
The principle of net neutrality was also introduced in the rules on open internet access that helped to shape the current Roaming Regulations. However, the net neutrality rules will not be affected by this consultation as there is no expiry date for the net neutrality rules.
The Commission's consultation seeks to gather evidence under the following sections:
- General questions on the Roaming Regulation.
- Emergency communication and public warning systems.
- Review of wholesale roaming markets.
- Quality of service of regulated roaming services.
- Roaming and machine-to-machine services and Internet of Things (IoT)
- Roaming and technological developments.
- Value-added services.
- Potential simplification/burden reduction.
In addition to requesting views on how well (or badly) the current Roaming Regulations are performing, the Commission is seeking views on:
- The options to address the possible difference in quality of service offered while roaming compared to when at home.
- Whether there is a need to make some clarifications regarding the wholesale access conditions for permanent roaming for the purposes of connectivity for the Internet of Things.
- Whether the Roaming Regulations are sufficient to ensure that consumers are given access to the newest mobile technology (such as 5G) while roaming.
- Which technological and business developments are likely to cause the greatest competitive pressure to traditional retail roaming services.
Finally, the Commission also seeks proposals to simplify and improve the efficiency of the Roaming Regulations.
Impact on consumers and businesses?
It is clear that the Commission is proud of the Roaming Regulations and cites them as "one of the top-20 EU achievements during the Juncker Commission mandate", and it is likely to want to prolong the Roaming Regulations beyond the current 30 June 2022 end date.
The changes to the Roaming Regulations that the Commission will introduce and the form that they will take remain to be seen. While there are some pointers in the Commission's consultation document – such as ensuring future regulation is futureproofed for the emergence of new technologies such as 5G, eSIM and IoT – it does not make any firm proposals.
The Commission states that the public consultation will allow it to explore the impact that any prolongation on the Roaming Regulations would have on both consumers and businesses and it is expected that the responses received will help shape the Commission's future policies and regulations.
For UK consumers and businesses, the impact of Brexit needs to be taken into consideration.
After leaving the EU on 31 January, the UK entered into an 11-month transition period, which ends on the 31 December 2020. During the transition period, most EU rules and regulations, including the Roaming Regulations, continue to apply, but, after the end of the transition period, the UK will become a third country for the purposes of these regulations.
The Roaming Regulations were implemented as a "regulation" rather than as a "directive" and are therefore not guaranteed to continue applying in and to the UK post-transition. The government has stated that "surcharge-free roaming when you travel to EU and EEA countries may no longer be guaranteed from 1 January 2021". Does this mean that the UK people are likely to see their EU holiday phone bills increase next year to pre-2017 roam like home levels? Potentially not.
Originally due to come into force on the 31 January 2020, the government's Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (SI 2019/587) provides a safeguard from unexpected charges for UK people after the transition period ends. These EU exit regulations establish:
- that mobile operators must inform customers travelling abroad that they have reached 80% and 100% of their data allowance;
- a financial limit of £45 for data usage abroad, where people have to make an active choice to breach this limit;
- provisions requiring mobile operators to take reasonable steps to inform people how they can avoid inadvertent roaming (for example, when they are near borders).
For those in the UK travelling to the EU in 2021, the government's intervention is welcomed, but it certainly does not go as far as the Commission's Roam Like Home regulations. UK people and businesses may see their phone bills increase when travelling in Europe in 2021, but not to pre-2017 levels.
For the time being, the UK's mobile network operators, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, have confirmed that they currently have no plans to reintroduce roaming charges after the transition period has come to an end irrespective of the regulatory framework. Whether this continues permanently remains to be seen.
The consultation period runs from 19 June to 11 September 2020, after which the Commission will draft its proposals to prolong and potentially amend the Roaming Regulations.