The European Commission has laid out a plan to create a single telecoms market to drive investments and choke off mobile roaming charges.
Europeans will no longer be charged for incoming calls while travelling within the EU from 1 July 2014 if Europe's 28 members approve the 'Connected Continent' legislative package unveiled by Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in his 2013 State of the Union speech on Wednesday.
The proposal, driven by EU vice president and Digital Agenda chief Neelie Kroes, lays out a number of options for carriers to phase out all roaming charges by July 2016, but until then Europeans shouldn't expect a true end to roaming charges for data, SMS and outbound voice calls while travelling.
In the meantime, European operators will be given a choice to implement 'roam like at home' plans from 2014 and "enjoy lighter European regulation", according to Kroes — for example, avoiding retail price caps and not being forced to offer customers an alternative roaming provider while travelling.
To avoid regulation, from July 2014 operators will need to offer at least one special 'roam like at home' package that covers 17 countries and 70 percent of the EU's population. They would be expected to gradually expand 'roam like at home' to be included with all mobile packages.
Another option for operators is to offer all customers 'roam like at home' coverage in at least 10 EU countries covering 30 percent of the population. But operators that opt for this path will need to offer the roaming deal to all customers rather than select packages from the start.
From July 2016, it's expected that 'roam like at home' deals will cover all of Europe, but operators still face lighter touch regulation if they meet the 17 country minimum and can show they at least tried to reach total coverage. Operators will also be able to include "reasonable use" clauses within roaming packages.
Three UK implemented a similar roam like at home package earlier this month, providing UK customers home rates while abroad in seven countries, though two were outside the EU.
Operators that implement any of the suggested roaming schemes must allow customers to 'decouple' their device from the service provider while travelling and choose a separate roaming provider without having to buy a new SIM card.
"When you travel you can simply choose another provider who will give you better rates using same SIM card, same bill," Kroes said in a statement. "One way or the other, customers will be able to escape these high charges."
As flagged in a preview earlier this week, the reforms also deal with net neutrality, fixed-line international call premiums within Europe, harmonisation of consumer rights across Europe, better coordination of spectrum resources, and wholesale access regulation.
Laws to protect net netrality will still allow companies to provide services with assured quality levels, such as video on demand or business-critical cloud applications, so long as they don't interfere with the speeds promised to customers. Customers would also have the righ to check they are receiving the speeds they have paid for and cancel the contract if they are not met.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), which represents Europe's major carriers, welcomed the proposals but continued its call for lighter regulation that would bring requirements put on them in line with those on web service providers.
ETNO commissioned a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which blamed tougher regulations on operators for distorting and constraining investments in next generation networks in Europe.
"ETNO still believes, however, that the proposals would not overall create the momentum required to achieve the Digital Agenda targets and to contribute to Europe's economic growth," it said in a statement on Wednesday.
The BCG report found European investments in telecoms infrastructure had declined by two percent per year over the past five years and forecast continued contraction at that rate through to 2020 unless the EU deregulates fixed line access and lessens regulation.