EC cool on data-roaming regulation

The European Commission's director general of telecoms says data usage should be easier for roaming consumers to measure, but says data-roaming price caps 'should be avoided'

Mobile users should be made more aware of how much data they are using while abroad in Europe, the director general for the information society and media at the European Commission has said.

Speaking at a Westminster e-Forum on data roaming on Monday, Fabio Colasanti said the Commission was loath to impose a cap on the wholesale price of data usage while abroad, and said greater transparency to the consumer would be more appropriate for now. This position stands in contrast to that being taken by the Commission on the issue of SMS roaming, the price of which look set to be capped.

Several recent high-profile cases have involved UK customers receiving bills for thousands of pounds after using their handsets to download television shows while on holiday in Europe — a type of phenomenon that is often called 'bill shock'.

"There is a widespread feeling that a wholesale cap should be avoided. It is an emerging market and there could be unintended consequences," said Colasanti. "At the moment, the concern is the bill shock that consumers receive. Users often don't understand using data. The best idea, in my view, is if companies could say on devices how much data you are using, or give a fixed allowance on data roaming."

Speaking at the same event, independent telecoms consultant Ewan Sutherland said the concept of a megabyte was "meaningless" to users in any case, because data overheads would mean that even those who are aware of such technical terms would be unable to calculate the true size, in megabytes, of a download.

T-Mobile's regulatory counsel, Robyn Durie, said the Commission should not "get involved" in the question of data-roaming pricing as it has done with voice-roaming pricing. "These services have a more sophisticated pricing structure [than voice] — we are looking at quantities," she said. Durie also said data-roaming prices were coming down, "not just because commissioner [Viviane] Reding said they should, but because [operators] want to encourage people not to be afraid [to use such services]."

"There are alternatives — people can always use Wi-Fi," Durie added, claiming that "[pricing] regulation takes away operators' ability to innovate".

However, Nick White, the executive vide president of the International Telecommunications Users Group (INTUG), said business users still perceived "very little progress" with data roaming prices. "Tariffs are too complex and inconsistent," said White. "There is still very little, if any, competition. Our members tell us that expenditure on roaming is still not going down."

White complained that business users were having to employ 'Heath Robinson' solutions such as mobile VoIP and multiple SIM cards because of disparities in data-roaming pricing around the continent. Pointing to mobile applications and technologies such as the mobile office, field sales automation and telemetry, White said the idea of a single European business market needed to be supported by a single European telecoms market.

"The absence of effective competition at an international level, plus the challenges of consolidating applications, means we are stuck with prices that are far too high to encourage businesses to exploit further integration," White said.