Call to abolish Europe's mobile roaming charges
A top European Union commissioner urged politicians to abolish mobile roaming charges as part of an effort to reinvigorate the telecommunications market.
European commissioner for digital policies Neelie Kroes issued the appeal during a speech to members of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee in Brussels. The European Parliament will be up for re-election next year, which means a compressed timetable for accomplishing her agenda.
Ms Kroes also called for a renewed commitment to "network neutrality" - the concept that telecommunications carriers should give equal treatment to all types of content, whether voice, video or data, that travels over their networks.
"I want you to be able to go back to your constituents and say that you were able to end mobile roaming costs," she said. "I want you to be able to say that you saved their right to access the open internet, by guaranteeing net neutrality."
The speech was yet another move by Ms Kroes - a former EU antitrust chief who is a Dutch free-market economist - to fundamentally redefine the rules of the union's telecommunications market. In theory, the market is a single economic zone. But in reality, it is a patchwork of 27 national markets where operators charge people heavy fees whenever they cross a border with their smartphones.
Because competition has made basic cellphone service in Europe relatively inexpensive, compared with other developed countries, the roaming fees are a crucial part of network operators' businesses. And so, even if the European Parliament is willing to go along with Ms Kroes' plan, lobbying from the telecommunications industry could be intense.
The association representing Europe's largest phone operators, the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, said politicians should further deregulate the telecommunications market before considering an end to roaming fees.
The group said in a statement that the industry needed "a much less intrusive and a simplified regulatory framework which will facilitate new investments and pave the way towards a digital single market".
Smaller operators fear Ms Kroes' single-market proposal could extend the dominant influence of the big operator groups - Vodafone, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom - from isolated national markets to wide swaths of Europe.
Mobile roaming fees are charged when a person makes or receives calls and text messages, or surfs the internet, while outside their home country. Since 2007, the retail and wholesale level of the fees has been limited by law.
Carriers in the European Union can now charge up to 35 euro ¢ (A48¢) a minute for a roaming call within the bloc and up to 79 euro ¢ for every downloaded megabyte.
Deutsche Telekom, the big German carrier, issued a statement opposing Ms Kroes' proposal. It said: "The telecommunications sector stands to lose millions of euros under such a proposal. At the same time it is expected in the European Union that telecom companies are going to invest sizeable sums in the construction of modern broadband networks. The political decision-makers are the ones who must resolve this apparent contradiction."
Vodafone spokesman Simon Gordon declined to comment on the plan. But he said Vodafone already sold a special roaming package called Vodafone Red for 3 euros per day that gives customers the ability to make and receive unlimited texts and voice calls while roaming in 14 European countries. The package also allows a Vodafone customer to download as much data while travelling as they would at home each day under their existing plans, Mr Gordon said.
Ms Kroes earned the nickname "Steely Neelie" for her hard-charging approach to regulation during her previous job in Brussels. As the bloc's competition commissioner, she imposed a $1 billion penalty on Microsoft in 2008 as part of a decade-long battle over the way the software giant used its Windows computer operating system to curtail competition. By contrast, her successor Joaquin Almunia has gained a reputation for seeking settlements with companies where possible, rather than trying to win scalps.
Yet Ms Kroes has a friendly and informal manner, and she prides herself on real-world business experience, having sat on numerous corporate boards before joining the EU.
Last year, at the urging of Ms Kroes, EU lawmakers extended and lowered the price caps on roaming fees through July, 2017. And starting in July of next year, under the current rules, consumers are supposed to get the right to buy roaming packages from other operators, a change intended to introduce competition in the roaming market and bring down prices.