Mobile roaming will test the limits of the EU Digital Single Market

12 Jun 2017

The picture of mobile roaming in Europe is still far from perfect. Image: Stanisic Vladimi/Shutterstock

Roam if you want to, but do please read the small print, urges John Kennedy.

This Thursday (15 June), a long-held ambition of EU lawmakers will finally come to pass as mobile roaming charges will be dropped across the EU.

Well, this isn’t entirely true. Mobile roaming charges for phone calls and texts will be dropped, not mobile data. There will still be varying limits on how much mobile internet you can use to send and receive photos, access social media, or stream or download movies.

‘The mobile operators have held on to the one bulwark that makes sense for them to compete and make money: data’

Across Europe, politicians and media will proclaim a new dawn for Europe, and mobile roaming will be ballyhooed and heralded as if each individual politician came up with the idea themselves.

In fact, the culling of mobile roaming has been an ambition of EU lawmakers since the early 2000s. The so-called death of roaming has had so many false starts, to even get to where we are today is something of a miracle, if not a lesson in patience.

The EU Digital Single Market is more than just an ideal

EU lawmakers have a dream of creating the EU Digital Single Market, and they take this very seriously. They correctly believe that EU businesses are at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in the US or China, which can trade in one very large, single, homogeneous marketplace.

They want to overcome borders, cultures and languages, and the dismantling of mobile roaming is a crucial early step in this direction.

It was no easy victory. Unlike the US, where players such as AT&T and Verizon rule the roost, Europe is still a patchwork quilt of different nation-based network operators, with a few big players such as Vodafone, Orange and Telefónica having international scale. However, two decades ago, the US market was a patchwork quilt itself, with different operators known as Baby Bells, so who knows how the EU mobile network market will look, even a decade from now?

Getting these operators to agree to drop roaming for calls and texts is, however, a victory that would have been more worthy in 2007 before the iPhone came along.

Today, consumers have moved on from standard calls and texts to using internet-based apps such as Facebook Messenger, Viber and WhatsApp to handle most of their communications and share their selfies.

ComReg figures this week showed that text message volumes have fallen 16pc year-on-year. Average revenue per user (or ARPU) in the first quarter of 2017 was €22.11 per month, down from €24.12 per month last year.

Knowing this, the operators have held on to the one bulwark that makes sense for them to compete and make money: data.

Despite EU ideals, you need to remember that mobile operators have been doing this a long time. They fight and negotiate connections right down to every single precious minute that a call switches from one network to the next. That is why some bills can be exorbitant while travelling overseas – it is all down to the rates that each individual operator negotiates, and this is the Byzantine structure on which the global telecoms business is built. For your idealistic EU lawmaker, it may as well be a Gordian knot to unravel.

To have made it this far is a miracle and it ought to be applauded.

Mobile network operators feel aggrieved that the networks they are investing billions of euro in are being hijacked by players such as Google and Facebook, which are replacing traditional calls and texts with their own free apps and, in turn, raking in billions of dollars worth of advertising. They are smiling in the faces of mobile operators while they slowly twist the dagger.

The European mobile operators believe – and they may not be wrong – that they need wiggle room with data in order to stay viable.

So, while it is a victory of sorts for Europeans and the EU, as technology changes, it is possibly a hollow one for now.

Caveat emptor

While preparing for an appearance on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ Radio 1 at the weekend, I realised the tsunami of bill-shock complaints that are likely to engulf Europe in the months and years ahead, as EU citizens realise that they may have been sold a bit of a pup when it comes to mobile roaming.

First off, please bear in mind that marketing terms such as ‘roam like at home’ are only true to a point. If you are an Irish mobile customer, for example, you can indeed ring other Irish mobile numbers and pay just like you would at home, or be covered under your allowance. But, if you ring a local restaurant to make a booking, for example, you basically incur the international rates as before. The same will be true for text messaging.

However, the really interesting part is going to be mobile data.

You see, because the operators held onto their mobile bulwark and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future, your generous mobile data allowance at home, or ‘all you can eat’ as some operators describe it, will really be ‘all you can nibble’.

In their negotiations, the EU mobile operators have carved out some serious wiggle room.

If you are on a mobile bill arrangement that provides you with between 30GB and 60GB of monthly data, when you are abroad, it is likely to be a fraction of that (between 4GB and 6GB typically). This is very important to bear in mind.

The general rule of thumb is that the average mobile consumer will automatically get around 4GB of mobile data allotted to them, rising depending on how much they pay each month, and possibly falling if they are using a heavily subsidised device such as an iPhone 7 or a Samsung Galaxy S7 that they got for free with their contract.

Assume that for every €10 you pay on your mobile subscription each month, you will be entitled to about 2GB of roaming data. A €20-per-month subscription will get you perhaps 4GB of roaming data, maybe more, or possibly less because you got a free smartphone.

Some operators such as Vodafone have decided to match your domestic data allowance with your international allowance, but not all have, so, before you travel, read the small print or check out your options for bumping up your allowance.

The penalties for exceeding your mobile data allowance will work out at around €10 per gigabyte (GB) you consume.

And what does 1GB of data look like? Well, think of it like this:

  • A typical movie on Netflix streams at 1GB per hour.
  • The average movie size to download can be around 1.8GB.
  • You might also squeeze 200 photos within 1GB.
  • If you are using the Facebook app, expect to consume 80MB of data per hour, but because Facebook is now so video-intensive, it is a moveable target.

My advice for anyone travelling is to plan ahead and realise what you have to play with when overseas. The EU-wide roaming deal is EU only, so if you travel to Turkey or the US, stock up on knowledge of what your costs are going to be and mitigate in advance.

In the UK two years ago, a young woman was hit with a £21,000 bill for roaming abroad. In recent years, an Irish business woman travelling to the US got hit with a €7,500 bill. While EU-based mobile operators are obliged to warn you by text when you’ve passed €50 worth of data consumed, many users may blithely ignore such warnings, and will do so at their peril.

Remember the rule of thumb: you will pay around €10 for every 1GB over your limit. If your kids spend nine hours watching Netflix after your limit has been surpassed, that could be €90 onto your bill. Watch that multiply over a week’s holiday and if you haven’t been paying attention, your eyes will water.

If you only have 4GB or 6GB of roaming data to play with, depending on your operator, go to your settings and turn ‘Mobile Data’ off, saving your precious data for when you actually need it, for example, with Google Maps, or calling in a MyTaxi or Uber ride. And remember to turn it off again.

Use Wi-Fi wherever you can. Most hotels and airports provide this for free and the EU is embarking on another Digital Single Market plan of putting free Wi-Fi in more than 8,000 public spaces across Europe. Do not, whatever you do, access your online banking while using public Wi-Fi, as hackers are lying in wait and can easily hijack your device in a hotel lobby, airport or restaurant.

If you are travelling alone or with your brood – most of whom are also likely to be toting their own mobile devices – make sure to use the offline functions available in popular apps to avoid eating up precious data.

For example:

  • Netflix allows you to download movies onto your devices, so stock up before you hit the road.
  • Spotify lets you download albums and playlists to play back offline.
  • Google Maps comes with a very handy custom maps feature that allows you to download maps for entire regions and cities, to let you navigate without eating up your mobile data allowance.

This week, the EU will awaken to a new dawn where roaming for calls and texts will supposedly be a thing of the past – but this is only true to an extent.

The operators are holding onto data because they have businesses to run and they will provide allowances at their discretion only. Some will be more generous than others.

There are caveats and the buyer must beware. So, read the small print and plan ahead accordingly.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years