Since June 2017, citizens in the EU have been able to use their mobile devices while in Europe without incurring extra charges for making calls, sending texts or using the internet. Previously these charges for UK travellers added up to an estimated £350m per year.
The EU regulations – rolled out under the strapline ‘Roam Like at Home’ – were the result of long-fought and complicated cross-border negotiations, relying on a reciprocal agreement between networks to provide data services to each other’s customers’ mobile data use in their respective countries.
For a British citizen travelling in Germany, for example, Roam Like at Home means the local German network will provide mobile services free of charge, and then recoup the costs from that customer’s UK network provider at a ‘wholesale’ rate. These wholesale rates are capped under EU law.
But after Brexit – and with the announcement that the UK will no longer be part of the Digital Single Market (DSM) – theoretically there would be nothing to prevent European networks from increasing the wholesale costs they charge their UK counterparts. And these costs could potentially then be pushed on to the consumer.
“From the UK ECC’s perspective, ‘Roam Like at Home’ was a welcome initiative. Prior to this we received a number of cases where UK travellers were victims of unexpectedly large bills for data-roaming whilst abroad, often due to automatic features on modern smartphones. All of a sudden, the right that consumers have had since June 2017 is at risk.” says Elisabetta Sciallis, legal executive for the UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC) and cross-border lead officer for CTSI.
“Everything depends on how the Brexit negotiations go. At the moment we have a benefit that comes from the EU which has become an integral part of holidaymaking for UK citizens. If something already exists as a consumer right, it needs to be taken into consideration during the negotiations”.
“From a legal perspective, the law establishing the EU abolition of roaming charges is a regulation, which has been written directly into UK law. This means there is a very high level of harmonization across Europe, as opposed to be a directive which must still be implemented. If this regulation were to be lost in the UK, alternatives would be complex to structure and implement.”
As with so much else surrounding Brexit, the lack of direction from the upper echelons of government is a cause for real concern among organizations such as the UK ECC and CTSI, whose duty it is to impart information to consumers.
“The ideal scenario would be that roaming charges are taken into consideration during the negotiation process and we would get some kind of principle on where we are going,” comments Sciallis.
“We are happy to read from the White Paper that the UK government is engaged in guaranteeing high standards for consumers, but we need some specific guidance on the matter of roaming charges. At the moment, consumers are protected. However, we don’t know what will happen after March 2019.”
Lack of Clarity
The major UK network operators – Three, Vodafone, EE and O2 – have announced that they have no plans at present to reintroduce roaming fees post-Brexit. But, as Sciallis observes, it is impossible for them to know what the future holds: “Of course, every operator needs to consider the long-term implications of Brexit negotiations” she says.
“Post-Brexit, the complexity of the matter is that UK carriers would still need agreement from European operators to allow UK customers to use their networks.” Sciallis adds that “a UK consumer travelling abroad may use a number of operators across Member States means that a consumers rights to ‘roam like at home’ cannot be unilaterally protected by UK legislation alone, and reciprocal agreements would need to be sought with all the other EU countries in order to maintain the benefit”
The irony is that as UK citizens face the possibility of diminished consumer protection and increased costs, people in the EU look set to benefit from further consumer protection measures around mobile phone use. As Sciallis observes, “The European Parliament recently said on Twitter that following the abolition of roaming charges, it now wants to focus on making calls cheaper”.
Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, two things are clear: there is an urgent need for the government to provide organisations such as the UK ECC and CTSI with guidance and clarity around these types of consumer issues; and that consumer rights must be placed at the heart of the negotiations to ensure that hard-won progress isn’t sacrificed.
As Sciallis puts it, “It is important that consumers retain access to fairly priced goods and services after Brexit, and that their rights remain fully protected when something goes wrong whilst travelling cross-border. Only by guaranteeing access to these rights and through advice services, like us at the UK ECC, will consumers be provided with the support they need to travel with confidence, which is at the basis of a robust economy”