Freedom of movement is one if the cornerstones that underpins the EU single Market. The EU strives to preserve and grow this freedom from time to time by combatting existing boundaries which hinder citizens from fully benefitting from the advantages of a truly single market. One such example would be last year’s announcement of the abolishment of roaming charges, a decision that reflects the EU’s obstructive view of roaming charges.
The decision to abolish roaming charges did not occur from one day to the next as the institutions involved, namely the European Commission, the Council and European Parliament, have been gradually adopting measures to cut down roaming charges within the EU since at least 2007.
The EU institutions first took action in 2007 by adopting Regulation(EC) No 717/2007 – the Roaming Regulation, which, adopted on the basis of Article 95 EC (now Article 114 TFEU), sets maximum price caps in relation to roaming charges that mobile telephony operators may charge for incoming/outgoing voice calls by consumers whilst abroad.
The Regulation was not welcomed by the leading European mobile operators who challenged its implementation. The matter was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a preliminary ruling and on the 8th June 2010, The ECJ gave its ruling on the matter - Case C-58/08 The Queen, on the application of Vodafone Ltd and Others v Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform  ECR I-4999 .
In response to the first question posed before it, the ECJ held that the aim of the regulation is to improve the conditions for the functioning of the internal market through removing obstacles to inter-state trade and concluded that it could indeed be adopted on the legal basis of Article 95. Secondly, it ruled that the Regulation was proportionate to the objective of protecting consumers against high charges despite having an adverse effect on network operators and that the principle of subsidiarity was not breached when one considers the interdependence of retail and wholesale prices.
The various EU institutions have continued to impose new EU rules on roaming since, including the extension of the validity of the Regulation and the broadening of its scope to include text messages and mobile data services.
On the 27th October 2015, The European Parliament voted in favour of adopting new rules that will completely abolish mobile roaming charges by June 2017. Mobile phone users who travel within Europe will have to pay the same prices as they would in their domestic country. The vote confirms that the agreement reached between European authorities in June 2015 to completely remove increased costs for calls, text and data while roaming within the EU be passed into law and the creation of a single communications market finally comes to fruition in 2017.
The commission have been vigilant in anticipating potential abuses that may occur as a result and have put forward several draft rules setting out what is required to avoid abuses of the end of roaming charges to ensure that the system functions properly.
The latest and most substantial draft yet was discussed by the Members of the college on 21 September 2016. According to the Commission, the revised draft’s main focus is on making the end of roaming charges work for all Europeans. The college of commissioners agreed that consumers should not be limited in terms of timing or volume whilst using their mobile devices abroad in the EU but that operators should still be afforded protective measures against possible abuses.
The new mechanism used will be based on the principle of residence or ’stable links’ EU consumers may have with any particular Member State thus enabling travellers using a SIM card of a Member State in which they reside or with which they have stable links to use their mobile device in any other EU country and “Roam like at Home”. Examples of ‘stable links’ include work commuters, expats who travel to and from their home country frequently or Erasmus students.
The new draft will also protect operators from abuses by allowing them to check usage patterns. The criteria for carrying out such checks include comparing domestic traffic with roaming traffic, long inactivity of given SIM cards associated with use mostly while roaming, and subscription and sequential use of multiple SIM cards by the same consumer while roaming. Such instances are referred to as ‘permanent roaming’ and a ‘fair use’ policy safeguard limit will be set so that when the limit is reached, the user would be alerted by the operator and a small surcharge fee would be charged.
The Commission plans on adopting the final proposal by mid-December 2016 following further potential amendments or changes as a result of necessary discussions with Member States, BEREC (Body of European Regulators in Electronic Communications) and any interested parties.
Overall, there has been a definite shift in favour of the consumer when it comes to roaming charges which can clearly be seen today, as the cost of sending text messages and making phone calls abroad has been reduced by more than 90% since the EU began capping roaming charges in 2007.
As stated by Pillar del Castillo of the European People’s Party (EPP), the agreement to terminate roaming charges once and for all translates into “very tangible benefits for all Europeans and economic sectors and constitutes an important step forward in the development of the Digital Single Market”. On a similar note, one may conclude that this will undoubtedly impact customers and European traveller in a positive way since it is based on the fair usage of services which they are subscribed to.
When considering all the developments that have taken place, from the adoption of the Roaming Regulation way back in 2007 to the latest draft rules discussed this September, it becomes clear that the European Parliament and Commission have come a long way in their efforts to eliminate roaming charges, which, by June 2017, should be a thing of the past within the EU.