The Brussels view: roaming surcharges drag on as policymakers dream of a “connected continent”

By April 17, 2015EU insight

By Owen Bennett

While the optimal scope of the European Commission’s competency is a debate that divides Europeans across the continent, the Institution’s continued efforts to curb roaming surcharges have received near unanimous support from citizens. But the ambitious crusade has hit a roadblock, with Member States and the Parliament at significant odds on the Commission’s legislative proposal. Here, our Brussels teams outlines the state of play as the Institutions begin tricky negotiations to agree on a new package to end roaming charges.

The European Commission began intervening in the roaming market in 2006, setting maximum rates at which mobile network operators could charge their subscribers. Since then, it has pushed the Parliament and EU Council to slowly lower these maximum rates. But while rates have fallen dramatically since the first regulatory intervention, European consumers are still a long way off being able to “roam like at home” when accessing telecommunication services in other Member States.

The ambition to permanently end roaming charges was formalised by the Commission in the 2013 Connected Continent legislative package. In addition to ending roaming, the package seeks to address net neutrality and spectrum issues, with the ultimate aim of creating a so-called “Single Market for Telecoms.”

The Commission’s proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the European Parliament in April 2014, albeit with the rather optimistic projection of eradicating roaming charges by December 2015.

But while MEPs adopted their position with ample time to woo voters ahead of Parliament elections in May 2014, progress on the legislation has slowed in the EU Council. Member States had significant difficulty forming a unified position on the text, with navigation of the nitty gritty aspects of the existing roaming surcharges regime proving difficult.

Member States recently agreed on a proposal to extend the deadline for the ending of roaming surcharges to 2018, while offering a carrot to MEPs and citizens in the form of a “basic roaming allowance”. This allowance would mean that citizens can browse the Internet or make calls broad at domestic rates, up to a limited allowance. Unsurprisingly, little indication of the extent of the allowance is offered in the Council text.

But in addition to timeline difficulties, policymakers face a headache concerning what regulatory approach to take to the wholesale roaming market. The original Commission proposal sought only to deal with the retail roaming market – the roaming charges that are applied to end users. But as policymakers in the Council have realised, any meaningful attempt to end roaming for consumers must be accompanied by a reform of wholesale roaming charges too – the charges that operators pay each other to allow their subscribers to access each other’s networks when abroad. The debate surrounding the ending of wholesale roaming charges is a fractious one, creating dividing lines among Member States and among mobile network operators.

Inter-institutional negotiations between the Parliament and the Council in a bid to reach a consensus text have been underway for a number of weeks. Given the significant divergence in the two Institutions’ position on the proposal, an agreement is unlikely to be reached by the end of this year, if at all. When coupled with the fact that another key aspect of the broader proposal – net neutrality – is exposing deep differences among lawmakers, the Connected Continent package negotiations look set to be a bruising encounter for both Institutions.

If you wish to learn more about the Connected Continent package, please contact the Political Intelligence Brussels team.