Let roaming fees hang around for a while longer, EU countries say

The Council of the European Union – the part of the EU legislature that represents member states – has formally laid out its stance on changing incoming legislation around roaming and net neutrality. This means negotiations with the European Parliament can formally commence, and as some parliamentarians warned on Tuesday, this will be a feisty fight.

The Council’s position opposes the Commission and Parliament’s original intention of eliminating roaming surcharges for those travelling within the EU by the end of this year. Instead, from mid-2016 people would get to use a daily 5MB “basic roaming allowance” when crossing borders that would be the same as domestic mobile data costs. Above that, operators will be able to charge extra for roaming, but not more than the wholesale costs levied by the carrier whose network is being roamed onto.

It would only be in mid-2018 that member states would ask the Commission to “assess … what further measures may be needed with a view to phasing out roaming charges” and then maybe propose new laws. In other words, the Council wants the abolition of roaming fees to be put on ice, despite the widespread push for a European digital single market.

As for net neutrality, “agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.” Again, this does not gel with the strict rules passed by the European Parliament last year, but EU digital chief Andrus Ansip, who is more bullish on the issue of the single digital market, has indicated that he is more sympathetic to this particular compromise.

According to sources in the European Parliament, many countries backed the watering-down of the roaming changes, with only Cyprus and the Italians saying the proposals didn’t go far enough. The strongest opponents of a tough net neutrality text were apparently the Germans and the British. It is probably worth nothing that two of Europe’s most powerful telcos, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, are German and British respectively.

Interestingly, the mobile industry body GSMA said in a statement that the reduced scope of the telecoms reform proposals, under the Council’s amendments, represented “a missed opportunity”. However, GSMA head Anne Bouverot said that “the immediate priority is for these proposals to reach a positive conclusion so that we can start the process of creating a truly Digital Single Market that will benefit Europe’s citizens and businesses.” The organization is against “overly prescriptive” neutrality rules, but a bit less openly agitated about the roaming elements.

The European consumer organization BEUC blamed telcos for lobbying against more meaningful roaming changes, arguing that a focus on wholesale prices could hinder competition (after all, Europe’s big telcos span many countries and will be both the buyer and supplier).

BEUC legal chief Guillermo Beltrà said:

It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges. The end of roaming has been in the making for a very long time, and this is something that telecoms have known and should be ready for. In fact, they are also to benefit from the new consumer demand that will emerge once roaming is abolished.

If the Parliament is to successfully push back against the watering-down of the roaming proposals, a majority of parliamentarians will need to join the fight.

So far, the second- and fourth-largest blocs in the European Parliament (the Socialists and Democrats and the Liberals and Democrats respectively) have both indicated that they will fight the Council hard.

The largest bloc, the center-right European People’s Party, has also previously taken much credit for shepherding through the reforms, and the single-market-motivated Commission will no doubt be right behind them. The net neutrality situation looks a bit less clear-cut.

Whatever happens, this should be entertaining to watch.

This article was updated at 5.15am PT to include the GSMA statement, and again at 6.10am PT to include information from my parliamentary sources. It was also updated on 5 March to include BEUC’s statement.