EU gets tough over 'rip-off' mobile roaming charges

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The Independent Online

Mobile phone companies face tough new rules if they do not end "rip-off" rates for customers accessing the internet or using their phones while abroad.

Viviane Reding, the European Union Telecoms Commissioner, warned mobile phone operators yesterday that they must bring down their prices by 1 July or face tough new legislation.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ms Reding said companies must introduce "credible" cuts to the price of texting or surfing the internet via a mobile outside a home state in the European Union.

"Sending a text message or downloading data in another country should not be substantially more expensive than at home," she said. "Higher retail charges abroad must be justified by additional cost of operators or they will have to disappear."

Ms Reding said texting while travelling to another European Union country should cost no more than it does at home, plus a marginal add-on cost.

British holidaymakers or business travellers currently pay an average of £4.11 per megabyte of data – or enough to view 200 web pages. When they are at home, the average cost is less than half – £1.50. Sending a text from a European country can cost as much as 49p.

Ms Reding said the "horror" of getting huge bills after using the internet on their phones had prevented many customers from using their mobiles while abroad. She called on the industry to bring in tariffs which would make it as easy and affordable as it was on a computer.

Ms Reding called on national competition regulators to be more vigilant when dealing with wholesale tariffs which operators charged each other to access their networks.

Ms Reding said most flat-rate services – commonly known as "all you eat" packages where consumers pay a fixed amount for unlimited access to the internet on their mobile each month – could be cheaper. "For European consumers, this is clear, this will be the future. The only question for the European industry is how quickly will you make this transition?" she said.

Several of the major mobile phone operators, including Britain's Vodafone, 3 Group from Hong Kong, the Dutch group KPN and Spain's Telefonica, have already cut their roaming data fees. The EU has already forced mobile phone operators to cut the cost of making phone calls within Europe – halving these so-called "roaming" fees.

Tom Phillips, head of Government and Regulatory Affairs at the GSM Association, which represents 700 mobile phone operators, said: "Accessing the internet and web pages while you're roaming around Europe can be expensive. But it's a very new service, it's growing in popularity and the prices are coming down very quickly."

Meanwhile, Europe's mobile phone operators are to unite to bring in tougher blocks against access to child sex abuse websites. Operators, including Vodafone and Orange, will install technology in their networks to bar access to thousands of banned sites.