3 ditches all roaming charges

Mobile operator removes all extra charges for roaming across its networks, for both voice and data

Mobile operator 3 has removed the surcharge for roaming across its international networks, also throwing data roaming into the bargain.

Effectively the first provider to remove such charges, 3 will from this month also allow its customers to use their existing voice and data bundles in any of its networks — SMS and MMS included. It will also no longer charge customers for receiving calls while abroad and on a 3 network.

The deal applies to all contract and pay-as-you-go 3 subscribers and — unlike with the deal announced by rival operator O2 in October — customers will not have to opt in or pay an extra fee to take advantage.

3 launched its X-Series phones and tariffs last November, becoming the first network in the UK to offer full mobile broadband, including applications such as Skype and instant messaging, at a flat rate. The new "3 Like Home" pricing policy covers these applications as well as web surfing, if the customer is already signed up for them.

3, which is owned by the Hong Kong company Hutchison Whampoa, has networks in Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Italy.

"I think it's a pretty bold move," Ovum analyst John Delaney told ZDNet UK, describing the pricing strategy as "clearly intended to cause waves".

One place at which those waves are aimed is certainly the European Commission, where 3 — a relative newcomer to the European market — has been lobbying heavily for the regulation of wholesale roaming rates (the charges levied between operators to interconnect their customers). As it has less reach than the likes of Vodafone or T-Mobile, 3 currently more often has to pay to connect its customers to other networks than it gets paid by other networks connecting their customers to 3. In other words, it gets relatively little revenue from roaming charges, while paying substantial amounts.

As a result, said Delaney, 3 has much to gain from getting rid of roaming fees — he suggested the new plan is aimed at making 3 appear as customer-friendly as possible, thus challenging its rivals to follow suit and hopefully levelling the playing field.

European Commissioner Viviane Reding has long been trying to force down prices for Europeans roaming within Europe, and EU parliamentary hearings on the subject will begin next week. Wholesale rates will, as a result, be cut by up to 70 percent. However, data roaming — which is currently seen as exorbitantly expensive — has so far escaped the remit of Reding's crusade, making 3's move even more unusual.

Delaney offered one caveat, however: customers travelling in a country covered by 3, but who accidentally roam off 3's network and onto another, will suddenly find themselves paying the usual high charges. "It's a little bit tricky in terms of marketing to their customers. I don't know how easy they're going to find doing that in a way that doesn't dilute the simplicity of the basic message," he said.