BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Agreeing on the best way to end mobile roaming charges in Europe is proving a difficult task among EU member states who are keen to deliver on their commitment to consumers but unsure of how to go about it.
Representatives from the EU’s 28 member states discussed a proposal from Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, at a meeting on Thursday which laid bare the disagreements over the time scale for bringing an end to the fees for using mobile phones in other EU countries.
“Member states have a bit of a stomach ache,” said one EU diplomat who was at the meeting, referring to roaming charges.
Outgoing EU telecoms commissioner Neelie Kroes had made ending such charges for people using their phones across borders inside the bloc a banner element in a package to overhaul the ailing telecoms sector and spur the continent’s big operators like France’s Orange and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom to invest in faster networks.
In April EU lawmakers gave it a ringing endorsement by overwhelmingly voting to abolish roaming fees by Dec. 15 2015.
But the Italian proposal, seen by Reuters, makes no mention of the date originally set by the European Parliament.
“The legislative date for the initial introduction of RLAH (roam like at home), subject to transitional measures and fair use limits, needs to be defined and is a significant political question,” the draft document states.
Italy’s undersecretary for telecoms Antonello Giacomelli reaffirmed on Friday his government’s commitment to setting a date for abolishing roaming charges, a common headache for Europeans traveling across the continent.
“The Italian presidency has not proposed any delay to the end of roaming charges, on the contrary it intends to set a fixed date,” he said in a statement.
“To this end it is trying to reach the best compromise between the different positions,” he added.
Though the draft will be further revised, it suggests a “glidepath”, or gradual increase in the usage allowances that will be charged at domestic rates, towards the goal of “roam like at home” (RLAH) - a time where someone using, say, a British mobile phone in Italy will pay the same charges as if they were still in Britain.
But some countries are worried that spelling out exactly how gradually roaming fees should come to an end is too prescriptive and should be left to national regulators.
“It’s very split,” said another EU diplomat.
“Some member states ... are concerned about the investment effect it could have on their operators and therefore quite cautious about doing anything which they feel may harm some of their large incumbents.”
Telecoms operators have protested against the end of roaming, although in private they admit that the fees must come to an end. However they say that doing so prematurely would remove a source of revenue that could hinder their ability to invest in upgrading their networks.
In a move seen as aimed at assuaging operators, the latest text under discussion foresees that users would pay domestic rates for using their mobile phone abroad only for a limited amount of consumption, the so-called ‘fair use’. Anything above that would be charged at a higher rate.
“The possibility of introducing a fair use clause has been well received by all member states,” Giacomelli said, adding that it would require further work.
The daily fair use limits for mobile phones would be calculated on the basis of “average annual domestic consumption in the EU”.
The text suggests that “in an initial period the minimum fair use limit would be defined as a fraction of the daily average domestic consumption”, and would gradually rise so as to fully reflect average daily use. It does not spell out how long the process would take.
Italy sees the “fair use” mechanism as a way to avoid people abusing the system, such as by purchasing SIM cards in EU countries where tariffs are lower, and then using them in countries where fees are higher.
Operators fear this could lead to an over-competitive internal market for mobile phones and a damaging drop in rates.
Editing by William Hardy