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Unbound by Brexit, largest U.K. mobile operator announces roaming charges for EU travel

June 24, 2021, 2:10 PM UTC

When Brexit fully took effect at the end of last year, the U.K.’s mobile operators insisted they had no plans to remove free voice, SMS, and data roaming for their customers when they visit the EU.

However, as in many areas, the reality of Brexit isn’t turning out so rosy. On Thursday, EE—the U.K.’s largest mobile operator—announced it would charge its customers for using their phones in the EU after all.

As of January, EE will charge £2 ($2.78) a day for data roaming in the EU, not including Ireland. “This will apply only to new and upgrading customers signing up to EE from the 7th July 2021 and will support investment into our U.K.-based customer service and leading U.K. network,” said a spokesperson.

“EE says the move will support investment in its U.K.-based services, but this is ultimately a backward step for consumers,” said Ernest Doku of the comparison-shopping service Uswitch in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, when one provider makes such a bold decision it can mean that others follow, so we’ll be watching to see what O2, Vodafone, and Three do next.”

As it happens, the U.K.’s Independent reported Wednesday that O2 was also reintroducing “roaming charges.” However, as O2 subsequently clarified, all the operator was doing was introducing a 25GB fair-use cap for those traveling into the EU—an inconvenience for some heavy users, but already common practice among O2’s competitors, and not quite the reintroduction of roaming charges.

Three has also announced changes to its fair-use policy for customers traveling to the EU: From July 1, its limit will fall from 20GB to 12GB, above which customers will pay 0.3 pennies per megabyte.

“We don’t have any plans” to reintroduce roaming charges, an O2 spokesperson said Thursday. “Customers will not have to pay a fee to use their phone while abroad,” said a Three spokesperson. A Vodafone spokesperson said the company had “no current plans to reintroduce roaming charges to the U.K.”

Brexit effect

The battle to remove roaming charges within the EU was hard-won and crucial for fortifying Europe’s prized “digital single market.” However, it’s hard to call it a single market when people are afraid of crossing an intra-EU border for fear of incurring whopping charges.

Before the European Commission started to force retail data-roaming prices down in 2012, it was quite normal for Britons to be charged as much as £3 per megabyte for the privilege of surfing the Internet on their phone while in the EU, despite the fact that the true cost to the operator was more like a penny per megabyte.

The Commission’s price caps started at €0.90 per megabyte and graded downward each year. Roaming surcharges were eliminated entirely within the EU in 2017.

Then along came Brexit, which had been set in motion the year before. In 2018 a U.K. parliamentary committee noted that operators on both sides of the new divide would be free to whack roaming charges on their customers.

“As the [British] Government does not seek participation in the Digital Single Market as part of the future economic partnership, this situation will arise in the event of both a negotiated and a non-negotiated exit,” the committee said.

Indeed, when the EU-U.K. trade agreement hovered into view at the end of 2020—with days to spare before the Brexit transition period ended—it promised “measures to encourage cooperation on the promotion of fair and transparent rates for international mobile roaming” but did nothing to stop the reintroduction of roaming charges.

Renewing regulation

The EU regulation that eliminated roaming fees within the union is due to expire at the end of June 2022, and in February the Commission proposed extending the rules for another decade, and even tightening them to the benefit of consumers.

However, the Commission’s proposals still need to be amended and approved by the EU’s other major players, including representatives of the EU’s countries. Consumer advocates complained last week that EU member states are trying to weaken important parts of the proposed changes.

According to BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, the changes could allow operators to charge one another higher wholesale fees for providing network access to customers, and to give customers a worse quality of experience while roaming than they would receive at home.

“The abolition of roaming fees is a signature dish that the EU produced in 2017 which has been very popular. Few people know these rules have an expiry date, and it is essential they are extended,” said BEUC director general Monique Goyens in a statement last week.

“It is disappointing that member states prefer to see weak improvements to these rules rather than to go the full mile and turn a successful policy into an out-and-out winner.”

Update: This article was updated on June 25 to include Vodafone’s statement.

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