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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.

Deutsche Telekom, the big German carrier, issued a statement opposing Ms. Kroes's proposal. "The telecommunications sector stands to lose millions of euros under such a proposal,'' the company said. "At the same time it is expected in the European Union that telecom companies are going to invest sizable sums in the construction of modern broadband networks. The political decision makers are the ones who must resolve this apparent contradiction.''

Simon Gordon, a spokesman for Vodafone, the largest mobile operator in Europe, declined to comment on the plan. But he said Vodafone already sold a special roaming package called Vodafone Red for 3 euros per day that gives customers the ability to make and receive unlimited texts and voice calls while roaming in 14 European countries. The package also allows a Vodafone customer to download as much data while traveling as they would at home each day under their existing plans, Mr. Gordon said.

Ms. Kroes earned the nickname "Steely Neelie" for her hard-charging approach to regulation during her previous job in Brussels. As the bloc's competition commissioner, she imposed a $1 billion penalty on Microsoft in 2008 as part of a decade-long battle over the way the software giant used its Windows computer operating system to curtail competition. By contrast, her successor, Joaquín Almunia, has gained a reputation for seeking settlements with companies where possible, rather than trying to win scalps. Yet Ms. Kroes has a friendly and informal manner, and she prides herself on real-world business experience, having sat on numerous corporate boards before joining the European Commission.

Last year, at the urging of Ms. Kroes, European Union lawmakers extended and lowered the price caps on roaming fees through July 2017. And starting in July of next year, under the current rules, consumers are supposed to get the right to buy roaming packages from other operators, a change intended to introduce competition in the roaming market and bring down prices. If Ms. Kroes's new plan were to take effect, it would override the changes set to take place in July 2014.

Malcolm Harbour, the chairman of the panel that heard the speech, said in an interview that Ms. Kroes would find support in Parliament. He said her push to abolish roaming fees would be part of a broader package she is expected to announce in October to enhance the operation and efficiency of a single European digital communications market.

"I think the push to abolish roaming stands a good chance of becoming law over the next year if Mrs. Kroes presents a well-calibrated package that frees industry from some of the current regulatory constraints on investment," Mr. Harbour said.

As for "network neutrality,'' when Parliament wrote that term into the main telecommunications law in 2009, the endorsement was legally vague and operators were largely left alone to manage data on their networks.


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