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EC threatens operators over data roaming

Roaming rip-offs: Operators must announce data and SMS roaming cuts within six weeks or face the wrath of the European Parliament
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Mobile operators have been given just a few weeks to lower their data-roaming tariffs, after the European Commission threatened them with further regulation.

According to a source close to the issue, if operators don't act soon then restrictions on data roaming rates could be in force by early next year.

Last July, Viviane Reding — the European commissioner for information society and media — tabled proposals that would force operators to cut the fees they charge customers for voice roaming. Reding pushed for changes both on the wholesale (what operators charge each other to interconnect calls) and, possibly, retail (what the customer gets billed) levels.

A clause in the proposals covered the costs of users sending an SMS or using data services while roaming outside their country. The initial idea was for SMS and data roaming to be tackled less heavily than voice roaming, which was seen at the time as a more pressing issue. This tactic has now changed, it appears.

An informed source has told ZDNet UK that the roaming proposals are being fast-tracked through the legislative process at an unusually high speed. The source also claimed that the European Parliament, which is now debating the proposals, is trying to play both "citizen's champion" (in the socialist camp) and the businessman's friend (the liberals). As a result, the Parliament may make Commissioner Reding's proposed caps on voice roaming charges even more restrictive for operators than was initially intended, by as much as 10 euro cents a minute.

A second group, involving the 27 telecommunications ministers from member states, is debating the proposals. According to the source, this group is also steering towards heavier regulation on the operators. Furthermore, countries including Ireland and France are apparently pushing for "stronger wording" on data roaming to be incorporated into the final legislation, and it now seems likely that the Commission — not national regulators, as was originally intended — will be given the power to enforce this.

The original roaming legislation will finally be agreed in June, and will come into force as soon as it is published a few weeks later. It now seems that, within a year of this, an amendment could be made adding data-roaming caps into the legislation.

Last week, Bloomberg reported Commissioner Reding saying at the recent Davos summit that the European Parliament was insisting "very strongly" on data and SMS roaming being included in the legislation. ZDNet UK's source claimed on Friday that Reding met personally with Vodafone boss Arun Sarin at the summit, warning him that the mobile industry must make a clear statement on reducing data-roaming charges within the next six weeks — to be enforced by the end of this year — if it was to convince European parliamentarians that legislation was unnecessary.

Vodafone had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Commissioner Reding's office said the Commission "hopes that it will not be necessary to include data roaming", but confirmed that "strong pressure" was coming from the European Parliament on this issue.

"Only if the mobile industry makes a convincing move to lower data-roaming tariffs in the weeks to come will it be possible to avoid addressing this issue by regulatory means," the Commission spokesperson added.

The operator 3 recently cancelled all roaming surcharges for voice, SMS and data for customers travelling within the coverage of 3's international networks. Commissioner Reding said the move "shows that there is room for reducing current prices for international roaming, as was proposed by the Commission".

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