Ofcom moves towards global roaming caps

The watchdog has said that operators should voluntarily introduce global roaming caps for data usage in order to reduce the number of cases of 'bill shock' experienced by customers returning home from abroad

Ofcom is considering introducing global caps on roaming charges, following a review of 'bill shock' customers.

Ofcom sign

Ofcom has said that operators should voluntarily introduce global roaming caps for data usage in order to reduce cases of 'bill shock' experienced by customers returning home from abroad. Image credit: Jon Yeomans

The regulator said on Thursday that as many as 1.4 million mobile phone customers had suffered bill shock in the past six months, running up unexpectedly high charges through roaming. As a result, Ofcom is now putting pressure on the telecoms industry to cut the number of cases by changing their roaming practices.

"Ofcom will now work with the mobile industry on a series of measures to address the main issues identified by the review. If these do not sufficiently reduce consumer harm, Ofcom may consider mandatory options to tackle the problem," it said in a statement.

The review identified the main cause of bill shock as international data usage outside of the EU, but also use within the UK that users do not realise is taking place, for example, the automatic updating of services on smartphones.

It also found that customers exceeding their inclusive voice minutes were running up significant bills, with lost and stolen phones contributing to surprise charges, Ofcom said.

Ofcom is also supporting the proposals of the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) to lower wholesale roaming costs to below 5 euro cents per MB of data by 2014, from their current level at around 25 cents. The retail cost of this data is, on average, at least €1, Ofcom added.

Under current EU roaming rules, operators must impose a €50 per month cap on roaming costs, alerting customers at between 80 and 100 percent of that limit. The EU is set to decide on new rules before the summer, with a view to them coming into effect by July. Ofcom is also pushing for operators to adopt this cap for worldwide roaming without the need for regulation to force them.

However, the watchdog said that if EU legislation does not get passed and operators fail to voluntarily lower the cost, it will "consider whether to consult on intervening" in order to protect consumers.

In addition to encouraging caps, Ofcom is also now planning to work with operators to introduce the possibility of maximum liability limits, for use in cases such as where a phone is lost or stolen.

Consumer concerns

Following publication of the Ofcom report, the Communications Consumer Panel (CCP) also expressed concern about the growing problem of unexpectedly high phone bills.

"Bill shock is becoming a serious problem for consumers. As well as the immediate financial impact of unexpected costs, there is also a risk that people become overly cautious of using their phones for data in case they incur extra charges, so aren't benefitting fully from the opportunities that are available," Bob Warner, chair of the CCP, said in a statement.

The CCP also expressed concern over calls to freephone numbers from mobiles; specifically, that they are more expensive to call than from a landline and that pricing information for mobile callers is hard to find out.

"In line with the positive recommendations and consumer awareness guide from Ofcom, we would like to see industry develop better information and mechanisms to give consumers control over their spending and alert them when they are likely to incur additional costs," Warner added.

Everything Everywhere told ZDNet UK that it plans to introduce new caps later in the year to "give customers greater control of their costs" but could not give further details.

Similarly, an O2 spokeswoman told ZDNet UK that "we've worked hard to try to help our customers stay in control of their costs", and that it will "continue to work to give more power to the customer".

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