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TPP tackles telco global roaming charges

The TPP will encourage lower global roaming rates through competition, equal access to wholesale rates between countries, and alternatives for network access for travellers.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is taking aim at the high cost of mobile global roaming, with the 12 signatory countries reaching an agreement to encourage competition in wholesale pricing for access to foreign mobile networks.

The TPP, which reached agreement on Monday after talks had stalled several times over digital rights and other issues, will regulate trade between Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, and Chile.

"After five years of intensive negotiations, we have come to an agreement that will create jobs, drive sustainable growth, foster inclusive development, and promote innovation across the Asia-Pacific region," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman.

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 12 Pacific rim countries have also agreed to attain lower global roaming charges through regulation.

"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, 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."

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."

It is not yet known what form the global mobile roaming regulatory rules will take in the TPP, but Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada 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.

A limited number of 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.

Customers of UK telco Three can already access their monthly allowance of data, calls, and messaging for no additional cost while travelling in Australia, France, the US, Hong Kong, Italy, Ireland, the Nordics, and other countries.

The TPP is also endeavouring to push trade and commerce giant China into conforming to the regulations imposed on its neighbours by the TPP.

"When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can't let countries like China write the rules of the global economy," United States President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"We should write those rules, opening new markets to American products while setting high standards for protecting workers and preserving our environment."

The full text of the agreement has yet to be published, with the 12 member states only releasing summaries.

"TPP negotiating parties are now finalising arrangements for the release of the TPP text, and it will be released well in advance of signature," said Australian Minister for Trade Andrew Robb. "Each country will then undertake its domestic treaty-making process."

"For Australia, this will involve tabling the treaty text in parliament along with a National Interest Analysis and a review by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties to which all interested parties can make submissions."

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