Post-Brexit roaming fees: Brits to pay a high price

Among the very many things being speculated around the consequences of the UK’s departure from European Union, aka Brexit, is the roaming scenario and how millions of mobile phone customers, both from UK and from the rest of Europe will be affected this June 2017. First, let’s recall the steps that led to the UK opting to leave the European Union.

Why is Britain leaving the European Union?

A referendum was held on Thursday 23 June, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. The ‘Leave’ campaign won by 52% to 48%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting.

When will Brexit become effective?

Britain got a new Prime Minister - Theresa May. For the UK to leave the EU it has to invoke an agreement called Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives the two sides two years to agree the terms of the split. Theresa May has said she intends to trigger this process by the end of March 2017, meaning the UK will be expected to have left by the summer of 2019.

British flags

Once the Article 50 has been triggered, the UK will have two years to negotiate its withdrawal. But no one really knows how the Brexit process will work - Article 50 was only created in late 2009 and it has never been used. EU law still stands in the UK until it ceases being a member. The UK will continue to abide by EU treaties and laws, but not take part in any decision-making.

In the light of the referendum result, what does the future hold for European roaming?

Today EU caps on roaming prices bind the UK networks. As of April 30 2016, calls could cost no more than €0.05, texts no more than €0.02, and data no more than €0.05 per megabyte. Roaming fees between EU countries will be abolished by June 15, 2017.

Since those rates are provided by the European Roaming Regulation that is binding only for the Member States of the European Union, when the UK leaves the EU, British MNOs will be free to charge whatever they want for roaming inside the EU. Likewise, subscribers to EU networks would once again have to pay roaming fees when visiting the UK.

However, this will not happen overnight. As I said, the abovementioned Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union provides a two-year negotiation period for a member state seeking to leave the union. During this time the UK would remain subject to EU treaties and laws, including the planned abolition of roaming rates in June 2017.

This weird situation could leave MNOs and their customers in a precarious position whereby European roaming is free for a time, only for roaming fees to be reintroduced 18 months later.

A quick bilateral deal between the UK and the EU to cover roaming is not possible, according to the European Commission. In a response to a question on the topic last year, Günther Oettinger, the German commissioner responsible for the bloc’s telecoms policy said, there are obvious constraints. Under WTO rules, any bilateral agreement outside of a comprehensive free-trade deal would have to be extended to all other WTO members, warned Mr Oettinger in a response to the European Parliament last year.

We know that it took more than 10 years to create an agreement that killed the European roaming charges. Post-Brexit, Britain is likely to find itself in the same position as Switzerland. QZ reports: As the think-tank Bruegel has pointed out, because Switzerland is not part of the EU, the Swiss currently pay one of the highest rates in Europe for data roaming. It appears that the UK will shortly find itself in the same position, Bruegel senior fellow J. Scott Marcus wrote in June.

However, at the moment the big four British operators haven't said much about any planned roaming changes. As with many other aspects of the Brexit issue, customers may just have to wait and see what happens, and hope that their roaming charges will not hit the very expensive rates all the European customers were charged before the European Roaming Regulation was created.

According to Roaming Telecoms Analyst ROCCO, Roaming in the UK will likely increase in the future: if you imagine that prices won't rise should the UK leave the EU, it's just not realistic, they will and it is unknown when they will recover to the current standards. Will a UK MNO decide to lead a competition war to restore EU rates for its subscribers? It hasn't happened in other non EU European countries so why would it happen in the UK.

Whatever happens in March and June this year, we will be monitoring the situation closely and will continue to deliver cost-effective roaming solutions without bill shock.

- Hanne @Uros