The mobile operator 3 has removed the default roaming capability on its mobile broadband services, saying it needs to protect its customers from excessive data-roaming charges.
Customers who want to use data while abroad in other European countries that have 3 networks will have roaming enabled by default, but those roaming elsewhere will have to notify the operator. 3 has brought in its new measures following several recent cases in which data roamers incurred 'bill shock', with some racking up thousands of pounds in charges.
"Because of the huge disparity between what we charge on our own networks and the costs charged by many networks for wholesale roaming across Europe, which we are forced to pass on to the customer, we have decided to make a data-roaming bar the default for our contract mobile broadband customers," said Kevin Russell, chief executive of 3 UK, on Tuesday.
Russell added that contract customers could still opt in to use their mobile broadband dongles in "non 3 markets", but said that even in such cases a £50 credit limit would be placed on their accounts to avoid thousands of pounds' worth of charges accumulating. European countries with 3 networks include the UK, Austria, Denmark, Italy and Sweden, and 3 customers roaming between these networks incur no extra charges. Typical European roaming charges raised by other networks as of today include T-Mobile's £1.50 a megabyte and O2's £3.
"We have seen customers on other networks run up bills of more than £4,000 just for downloading a couple of TV shows," said Russell. "We believe we have to draw attention to this issue as the use of dongles is growing rapidly and many more customers are in danger of being affected by bill shock this summer."
Data-roaming costs are increasingly under scrutiny after the European Commission forced operators last year to slash their voice-roaming rates within Europe.
The commission set a deadline for the start of July by which operators should have voluntarily dropped their data and SMS roaming rates. It is now possible that the information society and media commissioner Viviane Reding will place further regulation on operators to make sure this happens.
Warning that this year could be "the summer of mobile-broadband bill shock", Russell said he hoped the Commission and the UK's telecoms regulator, Ofcom, would take action to prevent this happening. "We have offered every network in Europe a reciprocal wholesale rate of 25 euro cents per megabyte — that's a platform to offer far better retail prices for Europe's consumers," he said. "Only a handful of operators have responded, leaving consumers exposed to the shocking charges."