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Government urged to tackle 'unacceptably high' mobile roaming charges

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Blackberry smartphone

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A House of Lords committee has today called on the government to take urgent action on the "unacceptably high" cost of mobile phone roaming within Europe.

After conducting a recent evidence gathering session, the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee has written to culture minister Ed Vaizey outlining its views on proposals from the European Commission to lower mobile phone roaming charges within the EU.

The peers said that current charges for mobile 'roaming' are "unacceptably high" and are "deterring consumers from accessing increasingly important smartphone services while abroad".

While the EC's proposals for retail and wholesale price caps for mobile services, particularly data, were welcomed as a way to drive down costs for consumers, the peers said that caps are "the means, not the end, to a truly competitive marketplace".

The long-term goal, they added, was the reduction of regulation on retail price caps and the introduction of more sustainable structural solutions that favour innovation and competition.

Last week, the committee heard evidence from mobile phone companies including Three and Everything Everywhere, along with consumer groups and regulators about why many customers are suffering mobile phone "bill shock" after they go abroad.

The peers have been scrutinising proposals from the EC to lower mobile phone roaming charges within EU countries and questioning the industry on the reasons behind the high cost of 'roaming'.

This followed an action plan published by media regulator Ofcom that pledged to prevent mobile users from suffering "bill shock", where they receive "unexpectedly" high bills.

Ofcom's review found that downloading data overseas was a key issue in generating high bills for consumers, particularly for anyone travelling outside of the European Union.

The watchdog said that customers can be particularly stung by downloading data on their smartphones without realising it, often via 'always on' web-connected services.

Current EU Roaming Regulation requires mobile operators to apply a cut-off limit once a consumer's mobile internet bill reaches 50 Euros (£42) per month while travelling in the EU.

EU regulatory group BEREC has proposed extending this measure so that EU citizens enjoy the same protection worldwide. The EU is to decide on the new rules before the summer, with a view to bringing them into force in July 2012.

However, the Lords committee agreed with Ofcom that action must be taken much sooner, and is calling on the government to intervene in the situation to protect consumers.

Baroness O'Cathain, the chairman of the Committee, said that the mobile industry will not reduce prices "voluntarily", and so regulators must look to take action.

"For too long consumers have been left in the dark as to roaming charges, leading to 'bill shock' when people use their phones abroad," she said.

"The industry will not reduce its prices voluntarily, and the EU needs to keep up its system of price caps in order to drive costs down. But retail price caps are only an interim solution: the EU must put in place more sustainable solutions, and by doing so develop a truly competitive marketplace in the longer-term.

"If they do, then we can finally start to see the consumer being put first in an area where their interests have too often been neglected."

> 4G mobile could become available in the UK this year

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