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European Commissioner calls for eliminating roaming fees

Kevin J. O'Brien (via NYT/ SMH) | May 31, 2013
A top European Union commissioner urged lawmakers on Thursday to abolish cellphone roaming charges as part of an effort to reinvigorate the telecommunications market.

A top European Union commissioner urged lawmakers on Thursday to abolish cellphone roaming charges as part of an effort to reinvigorate the telecommunications market.

Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for digital policies, issued the appeal during a speech to members of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee in Brussels. Parliament will be up for re-election next year, which means a compressed timetable for accomplishing her agenda.

Mrs. 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," Ms. Kroes 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 European Union 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 mobile phone 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 Parliament is willing to go along with Ms. Kroes's plan, lobbying from the telecommunications industry could be intense.

The association representing Europe's largest phone operators, the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, said that lawmakers should further deregulate the telecommunications market before considering an end to roaming fees.

The group said in a statement Thursday 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 that Ms. Kroes's single-market proposal could extend the dominant influence of the big operator groups — Vodafone, Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom and France Télécom; 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 cents (46 United States cents) per minute for a roaming call within the bloc, and up to 79 euro cents for every downloaded megabyte of data.

 

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