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EU ponders roaming charge changes

Brussels - The European Commission proposed on Wednesday scrapping time limits to next year's abolition of mobile phone roaming charges following criticism of its initial plan.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker abruptly ordered the previous proposal to be redrafted two weeks ago to make good on a pledge to end roaming charges as the EU executive seeks to shore up public support for the EU.

File picture: Christian Hartmann. Credit: REUTERS

The Commission's initial proposal was to allow consumers to roam for up to 90 days per year and for a maximum of 30 consecutive days, while paying only their domestic prices.

Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the digital single market, told a news conference that there would no longer be a formal limit on surcharge-free roaming when new rules enter force in June 2017.

“We will not put any limit in terms of days... but we decided to put clear safeguards in terms of residency,” he said.

Operators like Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom will be able to check consumers' usage patterns to ensure they do not abuse the system by buying a cheap SIM card in one EU country and using it permanently elsewhere.

“We want to protect both sides,” Ansip said.

If a person uses their phone a lot more abroad than at home, or if a SIM card is largely inactive at home, operators will be able to apply roaming surcharges, the Commission said in a statement.

Similarly, if a customer uses multiple SIM cards when travelling then operators would be able to charge for roaming. Operators, though, would have to inform users they were facing surcharges and consumers would be allowed to challenge them.

The level of those surcharges is currently being debated by the European Parliament and member states, with a final agreement expected early next year.

Such surcharges would not apply to travellers using SIM cards from countries in which they reside or with which they have a “stable link”, which could include work commuters, expats frequently in their home country or students on an exchange programme.

For a decade, battles over roaming charges have served as a barometer of EU politics. Europeans, millions of whom frequently cross often nearby borders, have been irritated by charges for making calls or using data abroad that seem far greater than any additional costs required to provide that service.

The Commission, in its role as enforcer of a single market blind to national frontiers inside the EU, has long cited its campaign to cap roaming charges, forcing them down by some 90 percent since 2007, in efforts to show voters it works for them.

But rearguard action by phone companies, defending profits and citing big discrepancies in the prices from Bulgaria to wealthy Luxembourg, has left disappointed consumer groups accusing the EU of caving in to corporate lobbying.

Viviane Reding, a member of the European Parliament and a former commissioner, said the Commission had kept its promise.

“After 10 years of tireless fight, roaming fees officially belong to the past,” she said.

The Commission said it would adopt its new proposal by December 15 following feedback from member states and national regulators.

Telecom and mobile operators' associations ETNO and GSMA said they would thoroughly analyse the new proposal and provide feedback.

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