UK MNOs to back EU roaming regulations after no-deal Brexit

07 February 2019 | James Pearce

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UK mobile operators hope to keep current roaming deals in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit – despite the UK government’s admission that it will revoke EU roaming regulations will be axed should it fail to strike a deal with the political block.

The UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March following a referendum in 2016, but the UK government has yet to sign an exit deal with the EU, increasing the possibility of what is being labelled a “no-deal” exit.

Earlier this week, as first reported by the Huffington Post, the UK government released a paper outlining its plans for withdrawing from the EU’s Roam Like at Home roaming initiative should it fail to strike an agreement with the EU.

Roam Like at Home, which was implemented in 2017, allows European citizens to use their mobile phone allowances while travelling in other EU countries without any extra cost. The regulation also sets out caps for wholesale roaming costs across the bloc for operators.

The draft ‘statutory instrument’, which has been tabled as part of a raft of no-deal preparations, means that from March 29 phone users could be liable for surcharges when they travel on the continent as the UK will revoke current legislation on this topic.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) justified its stance by saying that if the current system continued after Brexit, UK phone firms would face “increased costs” from EU carriers that they might then pass on to customers, according to the Huff Post.

This is because operators from other EU countries will be under no obligation to treat the UK’s four main mobile operators – Vodafone, BT’s EE, Telefonica’s O2 and Hutchison’s Three – the same as other European telcos.

Speaking to Capacity, a source at one of the UK mobile operators admitted there was some concern about European telcos increasing wholesale roaming charges, but added that any such move would be subject to negotiation. They added that customers were unlikely to see an impact immediately.

In a statement, and O2 spokesperson said the company has no current plans to change roaming costs in the event of a no-deal brexit. The spokesperson said: “We’re committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel overseas. 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.”

A spokesperson for Vodafone UK said it was too early to assess any impact from brexit, with negotiations still ongoing. The Vodafone spokesperson added: “It’s too soon to assess the implications of Brexit on roaming regulation, however, we expect competition will continue to drive good value for customers.”

Given that both Vodafone and O2 are part of larger telcos with notable European footprints, it is questionable how much impact a no-deal brexit would have on their roaming costs. Three UK, which is part of CK Hutchison, was one of the first to introduce widespread free roaming, offering roaming at no extra cost in over 70 destinations.

A spokesperson for Three said: “We’re committed to eradicating excessive roaming charges and will retain this great customer benefit regardless of Brexit negotiations allowing our customers to continue using their usual allowances when they travel within the EU.”

A spokesperson for BT's EE said: "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 Brexit negotiations will help ensure that UK operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers.”

Since the introduction of the EU roaming regulations, LTE roaming traffic has surged by between 600-800% in Europe, according to figures from carrier BICS. Mikaël Schachne, VP mobility solutions and IoT business at BICS, warned UK operators that it would be "exceptionally unwise" to revoke Roam Like at Home in the event of a no-deal brexit.

He said: “In its abolition of roaming charges, the EU set a major precedent, and motivated other operators to offer competitive international tariffs. Most of us have now grown accustomed to using our mobile phones – and all of those data-intensive apps and services – when we’re abroad, to a similar degree as when we’re in the UK. In taking that away, operators risk alienating their customer base, and risk haemorrhaging subscribers to those offering more cost-efficient roaming packages.

“In the event that all UK operators decide to opt out of Roam Like at Home following a no-deal, we’re still unlikely to see the high tariffs that once existed. Roaming packages promote and drive subscriber loyalty, and encourage the use of all manner of mobile services and apps, helping operators to market and deliver additional services, making it in service providers’ best interests to stay competitive.”