More roaming about roaming

mobile roaming

The quest for a single European market goes back further than even the introduction of a single European currency.

The Single European Act was meant to create a single market, or free trade area, within the European Union by the end of 1992. In reality, a true single market remains some way off.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in mobile communications. Mobile phones as well as data-capable devices such as the iPad are designed to be portable. And portable devices cross borders; the GSM phone network was designed specifically with roaming in mind.

Driving down those costs can only help businesses to simplify their policies on the use of mobile devices overseas, and it could improve security too.

Yet Europeans face far, far higher charges for simple services, such as receiving a call, in a neighbouring European country than they do at home. In the EU, this is capped at 11 euro cents (plus VAT) per minute, but on a UK subscriber's home network, incoming calls are free.

With telecoms networks now largely IP based, the actual additional work in delivering calls, or data services, to people travelling abroad, or roaming, must be minimal for the telcos. And since 2007, the EU has acted by progressively capping call charges, with the Commission taking the view that competition has failed to bring costs down far enough, or fast enough.

At the start of this month, the capped cost of making a voice call in the EU came down from 35 pence per minute to 32 pence per minute, and this will fall further next year. But the Commission has said that it will reduce the cap furtherfrom 2014.

Officials were said to be concerned that, without a new cap in place, roaming prices would start to rise again to pre-2007 levels. That concern is very real: uSwitch, the consumer price comparison service calculates that the average bill facing a holidaymaker returning abroad is a whopping 149.

Under the new proposals, data roaming will also be capped, with costs progressively limited until they reach 0.50 per MB. Data roaming is currently uncapped. This has long been a point of contention for businesses and their IT managers, who have to pay large bills, if their staff are to keep in touch when they travel for work.

Driving down those costs can only help businesses to simplify their policies on the use of mobile devices overseas, and it could improve security too: there will be less need to seek out free, and sometimes dubious, open Wi-Fi connections.

The commission, for its part, hopes that no more caps will be needed after 2016, when the proposed regulatory regime will expire. Competition, instead, will keep down costs.

Whether it will, remains to be seen. A simple comparison of the cost of electronic goods, such as an iPod or a TV, on the UK and French versions of Amazon shows how far we are from a true, single market. And that's even before mentioning the cost of a bottle of wine. The commission's regulators cannot retire just yet.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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