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Google's mobile network could offer free international 'roaming'

Negotiations with Hutchison Whampoa could mean subscribers get free use of mobile phone networks in the UK, Hong Kong, and other countries, according to the UK's Independent.

Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, announces Google's mobile network plans at Mobile World Congress 2015.
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, announces Google's mobile network plans at Mobile World Congress in March. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google reportedly is in talks with the operator of the UK's Three and several other mobile networks to let subscribers use its upcoming mobile phone service without charge while abroad.

Google hopes to offer customers free use of its upcoming network while outside the US, with none of the traditional "roaming" fees travelers pay, according to a report Saturday in the Telegraph. That option is the subject of negotiations between Google and Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, the UK newspaper said, citing unnamed industry sources.

Hutchison Whampoa would be a potentially powerful global partner to help Google cut roaming fees. It operates the UK's Three network and is trying to acquire the UK's O2 network from Telefonica. It also operates networks in Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Ireland.

In March, Google announced plans to offer mobile phone network service in coming months through partnerships to use other operators' network infrastructure. Although Google's product chief Sundar Pichai said the service will be "smaller scale," it could shake up the market by resetting customer expectations for what a network should offer and how much it could cost.

Roaming fees are a painful part of mobile phone service for people who travel outside their home countries. They can be socked with steep fees for calls, text messages and Internet data transfer -- unless they choose to forgo mobile phone service while traveling.

Relief from roaming fees has become a selling point for carriers trying to challenge larger incumbents. For example, T-Mobile USA offers some free international roaming benefits and has lured customers away from the top US carriers, AT&T and Verizon.

And in France, Iliad Group's Free Mobile offers 35 days of text, data and calling per year in 15 other countries, mostly European countries but expanding overseas to Canada in March.

Hutchison Whampoa and Google didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

European Commission politicians have been trying to cut roaming fees within Europe as part of a move to a unified telecommunications market -- one in which phone service travels across European borders as easily as Europeans themselves. But carriers rely heavily on roaming fees generated through partnerships with other carriers. The European Commission had hoped to end roaming fees in December 2015, but member states instead agreed only to push for lower roaming fees until at least 2018 in negotiations with the European Parliament.