Despite all the great promises, roaming fees are here to stay for some more time. They are not disappearing until 2018 or even later according to an amended proposal likely to get the backing of European governments as early as the end of February.
The compromise text put forward by the Latvian Presidency of the EU offers some sweeteners by providing for domestic rates to apply (as of June 2016) only to a very limited amount of traffic generated from abroad. That means travellers will resume paying surcharges after a few calls and some fiddling with their favourite app.
Extra fees will even keep applying to incoming calls.
One doesn’t have to be familiar with the technicalities of telecoms regulation to realize that we are nowhere near the “complete end of roaming charges” boasted by the proponent of the legislation and former EU commissioner for Digital agenda Neelie Kroes.
True, the European Parliament last April voted to ban roaming charges from 15 December 2015. Under the EU decision-making system MEPs will have to agree on a common text with Member states, thus raising the chances of a more consumer-friendly compromise.
However, given the differences between the two institutions, it is not clear to what extent a deal could restore Mrs Kroes’ pledges, or even if it could be struck at all.
Political wrangling apart, ending roaming charges gives also rise to a number of complex technical and legal issues. No wonder if national regulators, namely the very bodies in charge of putting the new rules into practice, have cautioned that the job “is not feasible”.
To be sure, they can’t be accused of siding with mobile operators (which have been lobbying hard against the proposal). Instead, they have simply highlighted an inconvenient truth most politicians in Brussels pretend to ignore: that the legislation is so ill conceived that it would do more harm than good.
In fact, it may lead to an increase in domestic prices, squeeze smaller (and often more competitive) operators and in the long term impair network investments. Competition will suffer as a result.
So the paradox here is that a legislation designed to benefit consumers will wound up harming them. This is not a surprise.
To her credit, Mrs Kroes tried her best to address this fragmentation only to see the bulk of her “Connected Continent” package being torn apart by Member states and (to a lesser extent) MEPs.
Alas, many more national barriers should be brought down before an end to roaming charges becomes fully sustainable for the industry and truly beneficial to European citizens.
It is indeed wrong to assume, as many do, that a roaming-free continent would accelerate the transition to a telecoms single market. It is precisely the other way round.