Ofcom: Data-roaming charges 'bad for businesses'

Ed Richards, the regulator's chief executive, has threatened operators with action over the high cost of data- and text-roaming in Europe

Ofcom chief Ed Richards has claimed that unreasonable mobile data-roaming costs could have an adverse impact on businesses which increasingly rely on mobile connectivity.

Speaking at the Ofcom Annual Plan stakeholder meeting on Tuesday, Richards was responding to a report on international roaming, issued by the European Regulators Group (ERG) on 17 January. He also called attention to the "high" cost of sending a text message from abroad, but claimed the price for data roaming was "an even more significant long-term issue".

"The average price charged by UK operators for using data-roaming services within Europe last summer was £4.11 per megabyte," said Richards. "These prices represent a significant price hurdle to the use of mobile internet while abroad. We want to see industry take the initiative on this issue or we may need to see further action at the European level since national regulators are unable to address these issues unilaterally."

"My biggest concern is the effect on businesses that increasingly depend on connectivity and, in particular, mobile connectivity," Richards added.

Richards noted that there had been "some reductions" in the cost of data roaming — a possible reference to O2's recent announcement that it was to slash such prices for its customers — but said that, while these cuts were very welcome, "we need further reductions by a wider range of providers".

"Ofcom, working with other national regulators across Europe, is highlighting the potential importance of this issue, based on the work of ERG," said Richards. "We intend to take this forward by working with colleagues in the ERG and the European Commission to examine a range of questions on how text and data roaming could be regulated in the future, if the market fails to deliver lower prices."

Richards also highlighted the voice-roaming practice of charging customers for the full first minute of usage, even if they speak for only a few seconds. Over that first minute, operators tend to charge per second or per half-minute.

"This is not contrary to the European Regulation," said Richards. "However, it means that for roaming, this practice adds up to 20 percent, on average, to consumer bills. This is a hidden charge and I am very concerned about it. The Commission has said they will consider the issue in their Review of the Regulation at the end of this year. I welcome that — but any action from that Review is unlikely to benefit consumers before mid-2010, so we need to consider this more promptly. As a result we will be looking to see whether we have any scope under our national powers to take action well before that — an issue that I will be discussing with my European colleagues."

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