European Union: International Roaming in Member Countries

Editor’s Note: This note summarizes the European Commission’s treatment of mobile roaming within the new framework directives for electronic communications services. The role of the European Regulators Group (ERG) in fashioning an EU-wide approach for the regulation of international roaming markets is also noted.

International roaming allows business and recreational travelers to use their mobile handsets to make and receive calls or send and receive Short Messaging Service (SMS) whilst visiting another country. With this arrangement, the customer is afforded similar functionality on the visited country’s network as they obtain at home. The home country’s operator pays the visited country’s operator a wholesale charge for use of its infrastructure. The home country’s operator in turn adds a retail mark-up to the wholesale charge to create a profit margin on the final charge to its customers.

Pricing Practices in International Roaming

The European Commission, the International Telecommunication Users Group (INTUG) and other stakeholders have established that:

  • EU roaming markets are imperfectly competitive,
  • Pricing practices are not transparent. Customers’ awareness of billing (whether they will be billed per second or per minute) and additional charges (such as taxes or fees) is severely limited,
  • Retail charges are excessive due to the high wholesale charges levied by visited country operators and also, in many cases, from high retail mark-ups imposed by home network operators,
  • Reductions in wholesale roaming charges are not passed through to customers in the form of cheaper retail charges, and
  • Technical and structural linkages between the markets require an EU-wide approach to any regulation of national roaming markets.

Therefore, reducing retail roaming charges to more reasonable levels, and promoting transparency and greater customer awareness, are key goals of the Commission.

Regulation in the European Union

The Commission identified "The wholesale national market for international roaming on public mobile networks" as a relevant market in its 2003 recommendation on relevant markets.  National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) are supposed to review this market in their country to determine whether Significant Market Power (SMP) exists, and if so to implement appropriate regulatory responses.

Comprising the new framework is the five EC Communications Directives that are developed to create an EU-wide regulation of the electronic and communications markets in member states.

The new EU regulatory framework for communications, comprising five EC Communications Directives, [1] came into effect on 25 July 2003. However, only a small number of Member states were able to implement the Directives on time. To date, of the countries that have implemented the Directives, only Finland, Italy, and Norway have made a finding of no-SMP in the wholesale national market for international roaming on public mobile networks.

The Commission wants to achieve drastic reductions in average retail roaming charges. To this end it proposes to impose an EU-wide price cap on wholesale roaming charges and a cap on the amount billed to customers. [2]

The Commission has been working with the European Regulators Group (ERG) and NRAs to create a practical, proportionate and speedy mechanism for eliminating the excessive charges for roaming. ERG supports the Commission’s aim of reducing roaming charges. It also favors a price cap on wholesale roaming charges, but has cautioned against imposing a cap on the retail amount billed to customers. The ERG is of the view that a cap on retail charges could have adverse consequences. For example mobile operators may increase the price of handsets and domestic mobile charges to offset any fall in revenues from roaming. The ERG has proposed an index of retail roaming charges be developed to check whether home country operators are passing on savings in wholesale charges to customers.

To promote transparency and greater awareness amongst customers, the ERG has established a website of roaming charges. This website seeks to track roaming charges across EU countries. The ERG is also working alongside NRAs to establish and maintain national websites on roaming charges.

Endnotes:

[1] The five Directives are: the Framework Directive (2002/21/EC), the Authorization Directive (2002/20/EC), the Access Directive (2002/19/EC), the Universal Service Directive (2002/22/EC), and the Privacy Directive (97/66/EC).

[2] SMS (texting) and data transmission for example downloading a file onto a portable email receiver such as a Blackberry are not part of the Commission’s proposal.

Sources:

European Regulators Group, ERG response to the European Commission’s call for input on its proposed EC regulation in the international roaming market, 22 March 2006, available from http://erg.eu.int

European Regulators Group, ERG Common Position on the Coordinated Analysis of the Markets for Wholesale International Roaming, ERG (05) 20Rev1, available from http://erg.eu.int

Ewan Sutherland, “International Roaming Charges: Overcharging and Competition Law”, Telecommunications Policy (Online), Vol. 24, No. 11, December 2000.European Commission, International Roaming Charges: Frequently Asked Questions.

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