It is fitting, perhaps, that united Europe has just served up a rare treat to its citizens: They can now travel throughout the European Union without incurring mobile roaming charges. The move comes as the EU’s popularity is increasing, and it’s a tangible example of what U.K. citizens may end up missing after Brexit.
Roaming charges stopped applying on Thursday after a more than 16-year process that is vintage EU.
Regulators first started questioning the fees mobile operators charged intra-EU travelers as far back as 2000; the bills could be startling, reaching hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the still-numerous European currencies. Proceedings were launched against U.K. and German operators that imposed extortionate tariffs on companies from other European countries. It was one of the most egregious ways in which Europe, ostensibly a single market, was fragmented.
In the U.S., for example, people can stay within their home network anywhere they go, so there are no fee surprises. In Europe, every country has its own telecom regulatory framework, licensing and spectrum distribution system, so even companies operating under the same brand throughout the continent, such as Telefonica with its O2 brand or Vodafone, work through separate operators in every country. Because of different regulatory frameworks, living standards and usage patterns, their tariffs vary widely. Last year, the cheapest monthly package offering 1 GB of data, 600 minutes of calls and 225 text messages cost 8 euros ($9) in Estonia and 60 euros in Hungary. Roaming tariffs were as illogically different but always hefty; tourists and business travelers preferred to keep their phones off, buy local SIM cards or book special roaming deals with their providers.
Getting the national operators to scrap the surcharges was quite a cat-herding exercise. The European Commission set up a group of national telecom regulators to start looking into it in 2004. By 2006, it had a proposal for a regulation that would eventually abolish roaming charges. But mobile operators, who derived some 5 percent of their revenue from intra-European roaming, resisted the essentially populist pressure. In the intervening years, as roaming traffic grew exponentially, the Commission’s efforts survived a legal challenge and countless rounds of negotiations. Meanwhile, the roaming tariffs were gradually lowered. Finally, in January, the European Commission and the European Parliament reached a political deal on the wholesale price operators in different countries would pay each other for traffic to allow their clients to roam. That made it possible to abolish the surcharges starting June 15.
Again in typical…