In mid-2017, Europeans will no longer be saddled with roaming charges when they make mobile phone calls anywhere within the European Union.
The European Commission announced on Tuesday the creation of a single telecommunications market across the continent, set to take effect June 15, 2017. The shift is part of a larger overhaul of Europe's telecom regulations, which also will put into place strong Net neutrality rules designed to prevent Internet providers from blocking or slowing down traffic or charging content providers for faster access.
The move is more than a political attempt to curry favor with millions of consumers. It's a core part of the European Commission's long-running effort to replace today's fragmented high-tech services with a more unified "Digital Single Market" that transcends country borders. In its proponents' view, a single market will help European businesses achieve the scale needed to avoid being supplanted by competitors in the US and Asia.
Europe is particularly sensitive when it comes to the telecommunications industry, having lost its mobile-phone prestige over the last decade. Europe carriers and handset makers once outdid the United States when it came to network services, but they lost their edge with the arrival of Google's Android and Apple's iOS operating systems and with a relatively slow adoption of faster 4G networks.
The agreement behind the change was reached following negotiations among the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. Under the agreement, consumers will pay the same price for mobile calls, texts and mobile data no matter where they're traveling in the European Union. That means the measure will apply to the 28 nations that comprise the EU, including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Sweden.
Roaming charges have been on the agenda in Europe for a few years under the stewardship of former Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, with the European Parliament voting last year to abolish roaming fees by the end of 2015. Although that date has been pushed back under the new plan, travelers are already benefiting: prices for roaming calls, instant messages and data have dropped by 80 percent since 2007, according to the Commission, with data roaming charges falling by as much as 91 percent in that time. In 2014, roaming charges were halved.
Starting in April 2016, roaming charges will be 75 percent cheaper than they are now for calls and data -- until they are abolished completely. Wireless carriers will be able to charge only a small amount beyond domestic prices of up to .05 euros per minute for each call, .02 euros for each message and .05 euros per megabyte of data (excluding the value-added tax).
Beyond the demise of roaming charges, Europe will also have its own Net neutrality rules starting next April.
As part of the agreement, all data will be treated equally, no data will be blocked or slowed down and no content providers will be able to pay Internet carriers to prioritize their data. The only exceptions to the rule will be those that involve network security or efforts to crack down on child pornography. Internet providers will still be able to offer higher-quality services but not "at the expense of the quality of the open Internet," the EC said.
The EC's agreement follows a, which also prohibits Internet providers from slowing down, blocking or prioritizing Internet traffic. The EC said that its Net neutrality rules will be the "strongest and most comprehensive" in the world, ensuring strong rights to subscribers to ensure that they get what they pay for. Europe's Net neutrality rules will go into effect April 30, 2016.
Despite the EC's progress and promise toward its Digital Single Market, some groups have raised an eyebrow at the new agreement.
"Today a deal has been drafted with a date to demolish the last digital borders of roaming charges," Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organization, said in a statement. "However, there is devil in the detail. The abolition of retail roaming prices by 2017 is dependent on a wholesale market review being completed, which promises to be a tough task. We cannot call it the end of roaming when there are in-built exceptions to allow providers to charge consumers when they go abroad if they fear it's too costly. It is critical that the EU and national governments observe the deadline and finally ban roaming."
The GSMA, an organization that represents the interests of mobile operators, also argued that more needs to be done.
"Now is the time to address these issues with clear, long-term thinking," Afke Schaart, the GSMA's vice president for Europe, said in a statement. "That is why the GSMA urges the EU institutions to accelerate the comprehensive review of the telecoms regulatory framework. The region needs a forward-looking policy and a regulatory framework that further strengthens Europe as a preferred location for investment and innovation, with European citizens receiving the same level of protection when using the same or similar communication services."
Regardless of any criticisms, what are the next steps for the agreement?
The new agreement must still be formally approved by the European Parliament and the European Council and then translated into all languages in the European Union before it can go into effect.
"Europeans have been calling and waiting for the end of roaming charges as well as for Net neutrality rules," Andrus Ansip, Commission vice president for the Digital Single Market, said in a statement. "They have been heard. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to create a Digital Single Market. Our plans to make it happen were fully endorsed by heads of state and government last week, and we should move faster than ever on this."