Effort to End E.U. Roaming Fees Gains Momentum

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BERLIN -- The timetable is tight, and the key decision makers appear to be dug in and uncooperative. Yet a consensus is emerging that mobile phone roaming fees -- the scourge of European travelers -- may soon be a thing of the past.

When she announced in May her desire to ban the unpopular fees, which travelers pay in the 28-nation European Union outside their home countries, Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner responsible for telecommunications, was greeted with skepticism. And with less than 11 months left before the European Parliament's legislative session ends June 30, some observers in Brussels thought Mrs. Kroes had run out of time.

But while most of official Brussels is on vacation, Mrs. Kroes and her staff appear to be edging closer to a deal that could abolish the fees, which make up an estimated 5 percent of operators' sales -- but a bigger chunk of profits.

According to a copy of the draft regulation Mrs. Kroes has circulated among members of the European Commission and which has been obtained by the International Herald Tribune, operators would get an incentive to lower roaming rates to the level of domestic calling fees.

The incentive would be a big one: an exemption from a law passed last year, also initiated by Mrs. Kroes, that will give E.U. consumers the option of buying roaming service from any operator on the Continent, not just their own, meaning the local operator could lose a customer who is out of the country altogether if it does not lower the rates.

The draft regulation would remove this right for consumers whose operators joined an alliance of carriers offering pan-European mobile phone roaming service at the same prices that consumers would pay if they did not leave home.

Some operators have objected, arguing that they should not be coerced to lower the fees, which are currently capped by retail price controls that expire at the end of June 2017. The current caps limit roaming charges to €0.24, or $0.32, per minute for a voice call, €0.07 per minute to receive a call, €0.08 to send a text message, and €0.45 for every downloaded megabyte of data.

One person with knowledge of the industry's lobbying position on the issue, who did not want to be identified because negotiations were at a delicate stage, said some operators were concerned that E.U. consumers would be free to buy low-cost roaming service, a form of "arbitrage" that could lead to the elimination of the fees altogether.

But that is precisely the goal of Mrs. Kroes and a growing number of lawmakers in the European Parliament, who view the fees as a hurdle to broad adoption of mobile broadband.

A new study to be released this month by Nielsen on behalf of Syniverse, a seller of roaming software and services to 900 mobile operators, including Telefónica and Vodafone in Europe, confirmed that the fees were still an obstacle -- despite price caps and text messages warning consumers that they were racking up charges.

In a survey of 13,000 consumers in 13 European countries obtained by the International Herald Tribune, the study found that on average 56 percent of cellphone users either limited the use of mobile Internet or turned off the roaming function on their devices entirely while traveling within the European Union.

Danielle Jacobs, chairwoman of the International Telecommunications Users Group, an association in Driebergen, the Netherlands, that represents telecommunications user groups in Europe, South America and Asia, said Europe's system of roaming fees was slowing the adoption of cloud-based mobile services, especially those used by business travelers. "Intug would be very happy with the abolishment of roaming fees in Europe," Mrs. Jacobs, who is also the chairwoman of the Belgian users' group, Beltug, said in an interview. "The uncertainty about mobile data roaming prices and the possible bill shocks are putting the brakes on using more mobile applications."

Mrs. Kroes's push to eliminate the fees faces hurdles. The European Parliament must support her plan, as must the Council of Ministers, which comprises representatives of each member state and is where telecommunications companies exert greater influence because they are large employers.

Pressure for change is building in Brussels. On July 9, members of the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy committee voted unanimously to end roaming fees by July 2015. The full Parliament is scheduled to take up the issue in September, when Mrs. Kroes is also expected to present details of her plan to lawmakers.

One lawmaker, Paul Rübig, who was a sponsor of the original roaming price controls that took effect in 2007, said that the momentum to end roaming fees had reached a critical intensity in Brussels.

With elections for the European Parliament scheduled for May, Mr. Rübig, a representative from Wels, Austria, said lawmakers were well aware of the possible political gain from banning the unpopular fees. According to Mr. Rübig, a survey this year of voter attitudes before the E.U. election showed that the top issue for Austrian voters -- more important than basic freedoms and other civil rights -- was the abolition of roaming fees in the European Union.

The survey conducted by the Austrian government found a level of support for ending fees that Mr. Rübig said was common across the bloc.

"The pressure to end roaming fees in the upcoming session will be enormous," Mr. Rübig said in an interview. "The days of roaming fees are definitely numbered."

Mary Clark, a vice president at Syniverse, based in Tampa, Florida, has followed the issue closely in Europe because it is central to her company's business.

She said that whether lawmakers voted to ban roaming fees outright next year or forced operators to eliminate the fees to retain their customers, change was coming.

"The end result is, we are going to get to an environment where the home pricing is the same as roaming pricing from a retail point of view," Ms. Clark said.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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