Regulator to force EU firms to halve price of roaming texts

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European legislation forcing mobile phone operators to cut the price of sending text messages between EU countries by up to 50 per cent could come into effect as early as next year.

At the moment, the average cost of SMS roaming is 29 euro cents, more than 10 times the price of a domestic message. Viviane Reding, the European communications commissioner, first raised the issue with the mobile networks last year. But only one, in Austria, met this month's deadline for lowering charges. So new laws regulating the market will be proposed in October, and if they are passed at a similar pace to last year's equivalent measures relating to voice calls, they will be in place in 2009.

"EU citizens should be free to text across borders without being ripped off," Ms Reding said. "Roaming charges have already drained the wallets of mobile customers too much. It is not a good sign for the competitiveness of Europe's mobile industry that it still hasn't got the message that credible price reductions are needed to avoid regulation."

The mobile phone industry – smarting from 60 per cent cuts in voice roaming charges imposed by Ms Reding last year – is not happy. The GSM Association, the global trade group, says the average price of SMS roaming is already down by 18 per cent over the last year. Its chief executive, Tom Phillips, said: "The proposals to single out yet another aspect of the mobile industry and apply regulation threatens to choke growth and stifle competition."

Some smaller operators are in favour of regulation because they are more likely to be buying space on others' networks than selling their own. Kevin Russell, chief executive of 3, said: "It took the EC to intervene on behalf of the consumer on voice roaming and we're glad it intends to do the same on texts."

The company, the smallest of the UK's five operators, wants the Commission to look at other data services, such as mobile internet. "The industry has failed to get wholesale prices down to levels at which the market for data can take off," Mr Russell added. "We have offered every operator in Europe a reciprocal wholesale data roaming deal, but only five out of more than 90 networks have taken us up on it."