EU mobile phone rates drop, but still rich pickings: survey

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An EU drive against high cross-border mobile telephone charges has halved prices, but operators are still making rich pickings and have raised charges in other regions, a survey found on Thursday.

"A main constraint on roaming usage is the lack of awareness by users, the chief executive of the TCL company behind the report Margrit Sessions said, commenting on the effects of an EU price cap.

The report also said that operators had repackaged their pricing packages with the net effect of making "roaming services to the US or other countries relatively expensive."

The report was published by Tariff Consultancy LTd., a firm specialising in providing marketing information.

"In our survey over the three-year period since 2007, it is striking how little unregulated roaming services pricing has declined," Sessions said. "The user can end up paying ten times more for communications when outside the EU."

She was referring to regulations introduced by the European Commission to limit contractual prices charged by national mobile telephone service operators in the 26 EU countries for calls across borders but within the EU.

The Commission acted in response to widespread complaints that such charging structures were excessively high.

TCL found that roaming rates for voice and text messages in the EU had halved as a result. But very few operators were applying rates below the ceiling prices laid down by the regulator, and the regulatory limit had now become the standard.

The rates charged to customers were about five times the wholesale ceiling rate paid by the service providers for the capacity. However "individual operator roaming rates vary from below the wholesale cap to more than ten times the cap rate."

Operators had responded to the price limits in the EU by various changes to their pricing packages for calls to, and in, the rest of the world, with the broad effect of raising those charges.

Some operators had changed the way they defined their tariff regions with the result that some countries that were previously included in the same same price band as the EU, such as the United States, the Asia Pacific region, Switzerland and Norway, now fell into an increased price band.

And operators were increasingly encouraging users to take bundled packages which "bypass the EU roaming cap" by offering discounts "in return for a weekly or monthly fee to selected holiday destinations but can attract higher rates to EU countries zones" than laid down under the rate cap.

The report said that the price of a voice call from the EU to the next tariff zone "has an average mark up of 200 percent," and the price of an SMS call outside the EU to the next zone included an average mark up of 160 percent.

And the price of mobile data roaming outside the EU to the next price zone had a mark up of 270 percent.