European legislators will on Thursday vote on a comprehensive package aimed at reducing roaming charges for mobile data, voice and text messages across the continent.
The European Parliament and Council have already negotiated a compromise deal that puts the new caps on roaming at a lower level than those originally proposed by the Commission, and the vote is the final stage in passing the legislation.
Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, whose department made the original proposals, told parliamentarians on Monday that high roaming charges are "an irritant for citizens, and an obstacle to the single market". She said the new legislation demonstrated "how the EU protects citizens' interests".
"Let me remind you what's at stake," she said. "These days, mobiles are everywhere. People expect to use their phones wherever they go. Especially across internal borders that are supposed to have disappeared. And better smartphones, tablets and online content mean a boom in mobile data."
The legislation would introduce retail price caps on roaming data for the first time, with a maximum of 90 euro cents (73p) per megabyte from this July, grading down to 50c per megabyte in 2014. Existing caps for voice and SMS would also drop.
However, the biggest change would be the decoupling of roaming packages from domestic packages. Currently, few people choose their domestic provider on the basis of its roaming deals, and the legislation is intended to introduce competition into that market.
This decoupling would only happen in two years' time, but from this year mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs, such as Virgin Mobile) that do not have their own physical infrastructure would also be able to buy connectivity from their larger rivals at capped wholesale rates. The idea here is to create more competition in the market in the short term.
"We now have a 'future-proof' solution," Kroes said. "Injecting competition into roaming markets will mean, for the first time ever, a structural, sustainable way to protect consumers."
Kroes said the new data roaming caps were needed as charges were "a constraint on citizens, a constraint on businesses, and a constraint on economic growth".
"This agreement removes that constraint, by capping data charges, and by letting people choose their data roaming provider — perhaps just as easily as they'd choose a Wi-Fi network," she said.
The legislation would also introduce a measure against 'bill shock' for those travelling outside the EU. A €50 limit must already be in place by default for customers travelling within the continent, but this would now be extended internationally "with better on-the-spot information and warnings about roaming charges, to avoid nasty bill surprises when you get home," Kroes said.
UPDATE (1pm): The regulation passed almost unanimously