UK operators, government aim to scrap roaming fees by 2016

Three of the UK’s mobile network operators have signed up to a government-brokered agreement to work towards scrapping the ‘roaming’ charges that customers pay when using their phones abroad.

Authorities say they will work with Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulatory, and the industry to develop a “UK government position for on-going negotiations in the EU that will help us achieve the goal of eliminating roaming charges within the EU by 2016”.

Three of the UK’s mobile network operators have signed up to a government-brokered agreement to work towards scrapping the ‘roaming’ charges that customers pay when using their phones abroad.

Authorities say they will work with Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulatory, and the industry to develop a “UK government position for on-going negotiations in the EU that will help us achieve the goal of eliminating roaming charges within the EU by 2016”.

EE (Hatfield, UK), Three UK (Maidenhead, UK) and Vodafone (Newbury, UK) have all signed up to the agreement – along with mobile virtual network operator Virgin Media (Hook, UK) – making Telefonica UK (Slough, UK) the only major mobile operator that is currently not involved.

The announcement comes several weeks after the European Commission (EC) published a new set of proposals for reforming Europe’s telecoms industry, which has been accused of falling behind those in Asia and the US.

Under EC proposals, operators are being urged to form cross-border alliances that allow them to provide roaming services at domestic rates.

From July next year, they would also be required to offer customers the option of using a separate roaming provider under so-called “de-coupling” arrangements.

In the past, operators have been fiercely critical of regulation on roaming, insisting that competition is already driving down prices and that the cost of domestic services will have to rise if roaming fees are slashed.

Under EC regulation introduced in 2012, both retail and wholesale prices are already set to fall in July 2014, with the biggest cuts being made to the cost of using data services when abroad.

The UK’s roaming initiative forms part of a wider scheme that also includes plans to eliminate mid-contract price rises and protect consumers from “huge bills” run up on stolen mobiles.

“We are ensuring hardworking families are not hit with shock bills through no fault of their own,” said Maria Miller, the UK’s culture secretary. “Families can be left struggling if carefully planned budgets are being blown away by unexpected bills from a stolen mobile or a mid-contract price rise.”

Fixed-line players BT (London, UK), Sky (London, UK) and TalkTalk (London, UK) are also involved in the initiative.