EU Referendum

EU Referendum: roaming charges revisited


The EU can claim very little which is to the direct advantage of ordinary people. So, when it thinks there is something it can use to its advantage, it grabs it with both hands and pushes it for all it's worth.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find the Government in its propaganda leaflet bigging up the decision to abolish mobile phone roaming charges across the EU, thereby saving UK customers up to 38p per minute on calls.

Claiming credit for such things, though, is what the EU does – even when it is not the prime mover. As Pete pointed out a little while back, reducing roaming charges is a global initiative in which one of the major players is not the EU but the OECD.

However, if there is any single group that can take the credit for forcing changes, it is an obscure organisation that calls itself the International Telephone Users Group (INTUG). Founded in 1974, a year after the UK joined the then EEC, it is an international association of business users of telecommunications with members and contacts in all five continents and thus claims a global presence.

The trigger for the initiative that the EU claims as its own was in fact a 1999 report by INTUG Europe. It sought to investigate the tariffs used for international GSM roaming within the EU, comparing them with conventional international telephone calls. Its aim was to make users aware of the cost of international mobile telephones.

In turn, this triggered an investigation by the European Commission, DG competition, which reported in December 2000. At this stage, though, the EU intervention was distinctly weak, arguing mainly for improved transparency, with the publication of charges by operators in order to increase public pressure for change.

By then, INTUG has also involved the OECD, making a presentation to its Working Party on Telecommunication and Information Service Policies. "In its early days a little overpricing or cross-subsidy was acceptable while operators were becoming established", it said, then declaring: "That has long since ceased to be acceptable. Users will not tolerate it and will do whatever is necessary to bring to an end the existing oligopolies and market structures".

Interestingly, in July 2000, even the BBC had acknowledged the role of INTUG, reporting that the [1999] Intug report had "prompted the EU to look into roaming charges". The then state of the art can be seen from this report.

By 2004, things were warming up, with the European Regulators Group (ERG), made up from EU member state regulators, sending a questionnaire to all network operators asking them to detail their roaming charges.

By 2007, though, EU action was still painfully slow, with regulations calling for price transparency and setting up maximum tariffs for wholesale prices. Two years later, we then see a major report from the OECD, finding that roaming rates were "excessive" when compared to the underlying wholesale costs of providing the roaming service or the retail price of a domestic mobile call plus an international call from the fixed network.

Then, a year later in 2010, the OECD published its policy recommendations, which put the move to reduce roaming charges on a truly international footing, also pulling in the WTO as part of a globally co-ordinated initiative.

By 2008, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) had become involved, producing a comprehensive report comprising a "Regulatory analysis of international mobile roaming services". To this day, the ITU remains a major player, with its Let's roam the world initiative.

In 2013, effectively it was all over, with the OECD invoking WTO provisions, stating that "international mobile roaming services are believed to fall under the scope of these provisions" and "more clearly so under section 5 a) of the Annex on Telecommunications".

EU or no, the writing was on the wall. We saw in 2013, India committing to removing roaming charges. African countries followed, alongside Latin AmericaASEAN members are set to do likewise. In the United States and the Caribbean, things are also moving in the right direction.

As for the EU, it has been slow to the point of hesitant, its actions marked down as unambitious. Its claim to be looking after consumer interests is hollow, representing nothing more than them taking credit for an unstoppable movement that was going to happen anyway.