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European Union to ban wireless roaming charges starting in 2017

The European Parliament approved a bill on Tuesday that would effectively ban wireless companies from charging roaming fees to their customers when they travel within any of the group's 28 member nations.

Minimal fees to be allowed under 'exceptional circumstances,' but most will be outlawed

Roaming charges that result when customers of different carriers travel on other companies' networks are a common complaint from consumers, but a new law aims to do away with them in the European Union. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The European Parliament approved a bill on Tuesday that would effectively ban wireless companies from charging roaming fees to their customers when they travel within any of the group's 28 member nations.

Roaming charges are extra fees that consumers are billed when they use voice, texting or data services outside of their home networks. Long an irritant to consumers, such charges can cause cellphone bills to balloon to exorbitant amounts.

The CRTC recently tried to rein in the fees a little by setting a cap on the amount that wireless companies can charge each other when customers travel between different networks. But the move in Europe takes that one step further, effectively mandating that except for under "exceptional circumstances" mobile phone users can only be required to pay the same prices when they use their devices abroad as they do at home.

"When it comes to roaming costs, they will be abolished from July 2017," said member of the European Parliament Pilar del Castillo Vera.

European lawmakers actually passed the law in June, but the Parliament had until Tuesday to make amendments to the original bill. By not doing so, the original bill as proposed becomes law, the European Parliament said in a release.

Initially roaming charges will have an interim capped phase before being eliminated entirely.

As of April 30, 2016, roaming surcharges added to a customer's bill must not exceed:

  • Five euro cents (just over seven cents Cdn) per minute for voice.
  • Two euro cents (almost three cents Cdn) per text
  • Five euro cents per megabyte of mobile data use

Currently, those rates are capped at 19, six and 20 euro cents, respectively. The new rates will be in effect for the 13 months that follow next April, and then as of June 2017 there will be what the release calls "a complete ban on roaming charges for using mobile phones abroad in the EU."

Exceptions to the rule

But there's a little wiggle room. That's because the law allows wireless companies to charge a "small fee" after 2017 for roaming services if they "can prove that they cannot recover their costs and that this affects domestic prices," the release said.

If that's the case, companies can petition their local wireless regulators in those countries to "impose minimal surcharges in exceptional circumstances to recover these costs," but those fees have to be smaller than whatever they currently charge.

Critics of the deal say that's a large loophole that wireless companies will find ways to exploit. "Roaming surcharges will only be suspended up to a 'fair use' limit beyond which they still apply and continue to hinder the breaking down of barriers within Europe," European MP Jula Reda said on her website.

And even if the bill manages to kill roaming fees, wireless companies will likely just end up charging customers more for domestic use to make up for any lost roaming revenues. That's the argument put forward by European MP Roger Helmer, a member of Britain's ultra-nationalist UKIP party, and an opponent of the bill.

"It is profoundly regressive," he told the European Parliament. "It will benefit well-heeled jet-setters and business executives and will result in higher costs for domestic users."

"The operators will have lost a major revenue stream, they will seek to recover it, and the only place to recover it is from domestic prices," he said. 

European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip, meanwhile, hailed the bill as a major win for consumers, and said the EU is committed to fixing any issues and do away with senseless roaming fees once and for all. 

"There is still a lot to do for the abolition of surcharges to be sustainable throughout the European Union. The wholesale roaming market has to be reviewed. The fair use policies and sustainability mechanism need to be defined [but] we are committed to making the abolition of roaming surcharges a reality," he said. 

"There is no justification for any further delay." 

With files from The Associated Press

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