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TPP stops short of regulating global roaming rates

The full text of the TPP has revealed that it is simply encouraging member states to promote more reasonable costs for global roaming, rather than regulating the pricing.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is encouraging its 12 member states to promote more transparent and reasonable costs for international mobile roaming services in order to support the growth of trade and improve consumer interests, but has fallen short of explicitly requiring regulation.

The full text of the TPP has been published on the website for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade a month after reaching agreement, with the treaty aiming to regulate trade between Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, and Chile.

The wording of Article 13.6 of the Telecommunications chapter [PDF], which covers international mobile roaming, is fairly soft, however, with the TPP simply stating that members "may choose to adopt or maintain measures affecting rates for wholesale international roaming services with a view to ensuring that those rates are reasonable".

"Nothing in this Article shall require a party to regulate rates or conditions for international mobile roaming services," part 7 of the Article states. Rather, parties must simply "endeavour to cooperate on promoting transparent and reasonable rates" under part 1.

If parties deem it "appropriate", they may also work alongside other member states to implement mechanisms for ensuring roaming rates are reasonable.

Should a party choose to regulate international mobile roaming rates, Article 13.6(4) mandates that it must then ensure that telecommunications providers from other member states have access to these regulated rates for their customers to use while roaming -- as long as the two parties have entered a reciprocal arrangement for this.

The 12 parties must, however, provide each other with information on the retail global roaming rates they charge for voice, messaging, and data when customers travel between these member states. This information must be provided within a year of the TPP being entered into force, and updated annually.

Reliable and efficient telecommunications networks are a critical part of trade and supply, according to the TPP, with the document encouraging competitive network access rules for mobile suppliers; transparent regulatory procedures; regulations that do not discriminate against technologies; and timely, transparent, and non-discriminatory processes for allocating and using scarce telco resources, such as spectrum frequencies, phone numbers, and rights of way.

The Australian government last month claimed that it had succeeded in implementing the global roaming provision into the TPP document.

"Australia has successfully advocated for a provision that addresses, for the first time, the high cost of international mobile roaming," the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in its TPP overview [PDF].

The United States government expanded on this in its own summary last month, saying the plan involves increasing global roaming competition, ensuring equal access to wholesale rates between countries should one decide to offer a lower price, and providing other options for telco usage while travelling overseas.

"They also agree that they may take steps to promote competition in international mobile roaming services and facilitate the use of alternatives to roaming," the Office of the United States Trade Representative said in its TPP summary.

"TPP parties agree that, if a party chooses to regulate rates for wholesale international mobile roaming services, that party shall permit operators from the TPP countries that do not regulate such rates the opportunity to also benefit from the lower rates."

Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada had previously pointed towards a similar wholesale approach decided between telcos and shared between member states.

"A dedicated article addressing the high cost of international mobile roaming ... Ensures that a party's regulated rates and conditions on wholesale international roaming services are provided to the other parties' telecommunications service suppliers on a reciprocal basis," Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada said in its summary on the TPP's telecommunications chapter.

Similarly, the European Commission had earlier this year sought to scrap global roaming fees by 2016, with the European Parliament voting in a proposal to have roaming prices dictated by local competition in the country being visited by travellers.

However, in March, a majority of the 28 European Union member states in the European Council barred this from occurring by voting in favour of keeping roaming charges until 2018. They suggested an alternative scheme that would grant travellers a "basic roaming allowance" -- of only 5MB per day -- and calls, messaging, and data usage thereafter charged at a rate set lower than the maximum wholesale rate paid by operators to use the networks in other countries.

"This is a scandal. An end to roaming charges and the delivery of a genuine single market for telecoms was a campaign priority for all parties, many of whom are today responsible for blocking this measure," said Guy Verhofstadt, President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament.

"To say this text lacks ambition is an understatement. Certainly our group will not accept this text, as the only winner from it is national telecoms operators themselves. Member states should hang their heads in shame."

A limited number of Pacific Rim telcos and other providers have previously worked to improve global roaming costs, with Vodafone Australia offering customers on its Red plans international roaming capped at AU$5 per day and Apple selling a SIM in Australia, the US, the UK, and several European countries that allows customers to switch between mobile providers on short-term prepaid plans in each country.

Google is also reportedly negotiating with UK telco Hutchison on a wholesale access agreement to provide Google's US MVNO customers to make calls, send messages, and use data anywhere in the world for only the cost of their usual plan.

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