Data-roaming price cuts: Why customers are still on the hook

While new rules mean the cost of using data in Europe is lower than ever for EU citizens, it's not always clear how to get the best deal — or even if bill shock can be avoided altogether
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

New rules introduced on Sunday mean that data roaming within the EU should be a cheaper, and therefore better, experience than in the past. But the picture is still pretty confusing for travellers trying to decide whether switching to another operator will save them money.

If you're about to jump on a plane to Spain for a week, which network is best if you plan to just use data? Or perhaps some voice minutes and some data? And what if the cheapest provider for those things isn't actually your network?

For now, trying to work that out is just tough, unless you want to go down the route of getting a separate traveller SIM card.

Under the new regulations, the cost per MB of data is capped (at the retail level) at 70 euro cents plus VAT, and most operators have chosen to offer bundle deals to comply with this.

However, each bundle offered by UK operators brings different amounts of data usage and costs a different amount. In some cases, it may or may not include minutes and texts to use while abroad, or provide access to the normal minutes and texts that are included in the existing contract.

For example, Vodafone's Euro Traveller package lets people use their own voice, text and data allowance for £3 a day. However, if you opt in to that bundle, you won't be able to switch back to its Vodafone Passport or Data Traveller packages, which could work out as a better deal.

The company doesn't put this information front and centre when you sign up to Euro Traveller. To notice it before making a switch, you'd actually have to go to some effort. I'm not singling out Vodafone; the others are just as confusing.

Another thing: if you opt into one of the new bundles, you're usually also choosing to allow the operator not to send you an alert when you spend €50 on data — a warning laid down in EU rules.

And, while I'm at it, did I mean opt out, or opt in? Well, that would depend on the specific network and bundle.

Not so straightforward

It could be argued that this difference in packages is a sign that competition can be relied upon to continue to drive prices lower. Even so, the companies involved should be making it much more straightforward for customers find relevant information.

The only operator making it at least semi-straightforward is T-Mobile UK, which simply won't let its customers use data services without first signing up to some sort of bundle. That sounds sensible to me. If you use up all the allowance, you simply buy another bundle rather than reverting to the default per MB rate of the network.

Overall, the new regulations are merely a step in the right direction, rather than the arrival point. Data roaming is still too expensive, mainly because I can see no technical reason why the cost of carrying data should be significantly more expensive abroad than locally.

Things might get better in July 2014, when the networks will be forced to decouple roaming packages from normal contract agreements, and people should be able to pick a provider on price alone. But my suspicion is that the small print telling customers about the decoupling will remain written very small indeed.

The big issue, though, is that these regulations only reach so far. People are still paying through the nose when they travel outside the EU. There's a good chance that if people get used to logging on while on holiday or business trips in Europe, then carry on this behaviour in other countries. Outside the EU, customers are still going to be getting charged up to £8 per MB, as opposed to 70p.

What's really needed now is a coherent approach to global data roaming and global regulation of wholesale data costs. People are still at risk of bill shock when they visit non-European destinations, and there's simply no reason for it.

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