Does Brexit Mean Return of Roaming Fees? Phone Companies Say No

(Bloomberg) -- It’s not often that a new rule enforced by Brussels bureaucrats gets a warm reception in Britain. Regulation (EU) 2017/920 was one exception.

The legislation stopped telecom companies imposing extra charges on customers for making phone calls and using mobile data while traveling around the 28-member European Union. Before the ban took effect in June last year, holidaymakers would search anxiously for poolside WiFi or risk a hefty bill when they got home.

Britain’s planned exit from the European Union next March would release U.K. phone companies from those rules, giving them a potentially tempting opportunity to re-introduce the roaming fees and restore millions of euros in lost revenue. Some European carriers said the EU ban cut their earnings growth by several percentage points in the months that followed.

The U.K. government said on Thursday free mobile roaming in the EU would not be guaranteed if Britain leaves the bloc without a new agreement governing their relationship, although it would cap data roaming charges at 45 pounds ($59).

Within that monthly limit, the phone companies would be free to do what they want unless the government replaces the EU roaming rules with its own.

Of the four network operators, only CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.’s Three brand has explicitly ruled out re-imposing roaming fees. The others say they have no plans to do so.

“We treat Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, as part of it so why would we not treat the U.K. that way?” asked Vittorio Colao, the outgoing chief executive officer of Vodafone Group Plc, early last year.

The European Union still allows carriers to charge each other at a wholesale level when visitors from rival companies roam on their networks. Telefonica SA, which operates as O2 in the U.K., and Vodafone enjoy lower wholesale charges as they have their own networks in holiday locations popular with Britons such as Spain and Italy. Three also operates in Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Italy.

The other operator, EE owner BT Group Plc, may be reluctant to re-impose the charges and risk driving away consumers just to recoup the wholesale costs.

Competition in U.K. telecoms is fierce and consumers are already used to the perk of free roaming. European carriers used to enjoy imposing steep costs for things like text messages but they have lowered or removed them over the years to try gain an edge over one another.

What The Carriers Say:

Newbury, England-based Vodafone: “We were the first U.K. operator to abolish roaming charges within the EU and we have no plans to introduce these charges. We very much hope arrangements can be made which will ensure we can continue to offer U.K. consumers our Roam-free service in more destinations than anyone else.”

O2 - the U.K. unit of Madrid, Spain-based Telefonica SA: “We currently have no plans to change our roaming services across Europe. We will be working closely with the government and other European operators to try and protect the current arrangements so our customers can continue to enjoy free EU roaming once Britain officially leaves the EU.”

Three - owned by Hong Kong conglomerate CK Hutchison: “We have previously confirmed that we will not seek to re-introduce roaming charges, having spearheaded efforts to abolish them in the first place and enable our customers to enjoy inclusive roaming across the EU and beyond into many key travel destinations USA etc.

EE, owned by London, U.K.-headquartered BT: “EE customers enjoy great value products and controls offering inclusive roaming in Europe and beyond, and we don’t have any plans to change these offers. We are working closely with government on this and hope they will put consumers at the top of their agenda in the Brexit negotiations to help ensure that U.K. operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers.”

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