Consumers will next year be able to use their mobile phones across the European Union for the same price as at home, it is planned, after officials voted to fast-track major reforms of telecoms regulation.
The group of 27 European Commissioners voted in Brussels on Tuesday to drive the package through in time for the European elections in May next year, to come into force as soon as 1 July 2014.
“They agreed that this time next year we will have got rid of these charges,” a Brussels source said
Officials will draw up and publish detailed proposals in the next six weeks.
They expect the death of roaming charges to typically wipe 2pc off mobile operators’ revenues, after several years of tightening regulations designed to put an end to shockingly high bills for holiday makers and business travellers. They argue that operators will gain in the longer term by customers using their mobiles more abroad, particularly to access the internet.
The reforms are designed to encourage radical consolidation of European mobile network operators. A source familiar with the plans said the European Commission believes there are far too many companies offering services across the 27 member states and that the fragmentation is a barrier to badly-needed investment. Without upgrades, mobile networks will buckle under the pressure of the rapid growth in internet traffic, it is feared.
“There are around 100 operators in Europe and only four in the US,” the source said. “That’s not sustainable if we’re going to have a single market and investment. Europe has less 4G mobile broadband than Africa at the moment.”
“Consolidation is not the aim. The aim is a single market, but if it means we get fewer, stronger operators, that’s good.”
With no roaming fees, officials believe the single market will mean foreign operators will be able to compete for British customers, and vice-versa. They are likely to form airline-style alliances that will lead to mergers, it is hoped.
The plans set up a clash between Brussels and telecoms bosses such as Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, who in February called for a “moratorium on regulation” in telecoms. He said industry had been a target for too long and it threatened employment. Neelie Kroes, the Commisisoner behind the reforms, told Mr Colao she would “call your bluff”.
To sweeten the loss roaming revenues for mobile operators, however, the new package of will include provisions to simplify operating across the EU by synchronising national sales of airwaves. Operators could also be allowed to do business across the bloc based on authorisation from a single national regulator, such as Ofcom.
In addition, there are no plans to impose further restrictions on mobile termination rates, the charges operators make to each other for connecting calls, which have been slashed in recent years to encourage competition.
The European Commission is also keen to push its telecoms reforms as evidence it is doing its original job of fostering a single market.
David Cameron called on Brussels in January to press ahead with reforms as he sought to defend Britain’s membership of the EU by suggesting British business will benefit from more market integration.