Mobile phone operators reacted with anger yesterday to ambitious plans to scrap all charges for receiving calls while travelling abroad but staying within the EU.
In what seemed a formal declaration of war on the networks, the European Commission unveiled legislation to force operators to apply the same price structure in foreign EU countries as on domestic networks. The law could be on the statute book by next summer.
The GSM Association, which represents 680 mobile operators worldwide, described the plan as "unprecedented, unnecessary and heavy handed", and insisted prices are falling.
But the EU's information and media commissioner, Viviane Reding, said it was "unacceptable that consumers are punished on their telephone bill simply for crossing a border". According to her survey, roaming charges have "generally remained at the same high level" across Europe over the past six months and in some cases have increased. The Commission document showed O2 customers from the UK being charged €5.50 (£3.80) for a four-minute call in France or Italy, while T-Mobile users paid €7.63 in Slovenia. Some consumers in other countries pay up to €13.05.
The new plan would eliminate all roaming charges for receiving a call when abroad but in the EU. A mobile customer abroad would pay only the price applicable at home for a local or international call. That could mean consumers could buy a SIM card in another country where tariffs are lower and save money on some calls by using it at home.
The initiative follows a decision in Ireland and Northern Ireland where there is one tariff north and south of the border for most users. Before its introduction, Ireland's Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, who lives in a border region, found different networks - with varying prices - operated in various parts of his own home.
European operators are thought to earn about €10bn from international roaming each year, though the proportion of this derived from EU users is unclear. The Commission says its proposed regulation would save the consumer between 40 and 60 per cent on mobile calls abroad.
But the GSM Association said: "A sample of key operators with customers in 12 European countries indicates roaming tariffs fell an average of 8 per cent across Europe last year." A spokesman for Vodafone said: "During the last 10 months our call charges for roaming have decreased by 40 per cent. This measure is unnecessary because the market and customer demand is driving roaming fees down."