Expat Essentials

EU to smartphone users: ‘Roam if you want to … roam around the world’

One of the things expats learn quickly is to NOT use their prepaid SIM card phones when they cross European borders. It doesn’t get much better when we get residence permits and switch over to permanent services because providers make it expensive to roam.

Simply going from, say, your cellular provider in the Netherlands to the roam function in Belgium means you pay more for every call, and your data plan goes to zero much faster.

But changes are coming.

Starting 15 June, 2017, roaming with your wireless device will get far less painful.

If you pay for a monthly package of minutes, SMS and data in your country, any voice call, text and surfing session on the road (in the EU) will be charged as if you’re NOT roaming. Though there are limits (More on that in a minute.).

This sounds simple, but no one waved a magic wand and ended roaming charges. We could give you the reasons everything is changing in mind-numbing detail. Or we could just tell you the European Commission – through its regulatory authority – lowered the boom on wireless providers, moving from “what the market will bear” pricing to limiting on the wholesale level how much those providers can charge each other wholesale – and ultimately you – for voice calls, texting and web access via smartphones.

(This will only apply to EU countries, so we’re not sure where this leaves the United Kingdom. But we’re thinking lowering roaming fees for Brits aren’t high on the list of must-dos for EU officials in Brussels at this stage of Brexit negotiations. Also, the deal is null and void in much of the Balkans, Norway and Switzerland, obviously.)

Per a news release, EU negotiators have agreed on the following wholesale caps:

• 3.2 cents per minute of voice call
• 1 cent per SMS (texting)

The changes also include a gradual reduction over the next five years 5 years for data caps decreasing from  7.7 euros per gigabyte (as of 15 June 2017) to:

• 6 euros per GB (as of 1 January 2018)

• 4.5  euros per GB (as of 1 January 2019)

• 3.5  euros per GB (as of 1 January 2020)

• 3 euros per GB (as of 1 January 2021)

• 2.5 euros per GB (as of 1 January 2022).

The original goal was to get rid of roaming fees by 2013. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

And if you’re asking, “So, didn’t the telecommunications giants push back on all this?”

The answer is, “Yes.”  There is, as one Irish reporter discovered, a ” ‘but’ the size of Estonia” in the new regs.

From Adrian Weckler’s post, “We’re being conned on roaming”:

While we all slept, our mobile operators persuaded the European Commission that customers don’t need to use Facebook, Google, Gmail, Snapchat, YouTube or Netflix as much when we’re on holidays.

Weckler’s point is, in order to eliminate call-roaming fees, the EC had to compromise on data, requiring wireless companies with 20 euro-per-month plans to offer consumers only 5 GB of data when they leave their country of origin.

I personally would blow through that 5GB limit in a couple of days just editing and posting images and content on Dispatches Europe.

And my daughters, with their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp habits, would be in big trouble.

Weckler is right: this is likely a generational distortion, with European Members of Parliament sure phone calls are most important to constituents.

Maybe in 2010.

You’re probably thinking all this is a bit beside the point because in most European countries, free Wi-Fi is increasingly available.

But not everywhere, as I learned recently on trips to Germany and Austria.

If the EU has one competitive advantage over the United States and other digital rivals, it’s equal, affordable and unfettered access to full connectivity and the latest communications technology.

Anything that inhibits the EU moving forward is more than an inconvenience … it’s going to have an impact on the overall competitive landscape.

So this isn’t just a consumer rights issue, it’s an economic-development issue.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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