‘Roam like at home’—the verdict

Since June 2017, people travelling outside their home country in the EU, Iceland, Lichtenstein or Norway have been able to use their mobile phones to make calls, send texts and download data at no extra cost.

The EU calls this ‘roam like at home’, but has the reality lived up to the name? The answer, according to a report published today, seems to be overwhelmingly “yes”.

In the third quarter of 2016, the total amount of roaming data downloaded in the participating countries was 16 million gigabytes. In the third quarter of 2017, which was the first quarter after the price cap kicked in, this figure rose to 84 million gigabytes—a more than five-fold increase. Total call volumes more than doubled.

Roaming

“European consumers have immediately and massively started to take advantage of the elimination of roaming charges,” said the report for the EU’s implementing body, the European Commission. “Particularly high increases in customers’ roaming consumption have been observed by Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Croatian and Spanish operators for voice [calls] (increases by more than 3 times), and by Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Spanish, and Latvian operators for data (increases by about 10 times and more).”

So how much are people saving? Roaming costs had actually been falling for several years before charges were scrapped altogether in June 2017. According to EU figures, the average cost of one megabyte of roaming data fell from €6 in 2007 to €0.7 in 2012, €0.2 in 2015 and just €0.05 on top of domestic prices in 2016.

This does not necessarily mean that people saved €0.05 per megabyte when ‘roam like at home’ kicked in. Costs for consumers could even have increased—some people feared that providers would raise domestic and roaming prices together to recoup revenue they might lose as a result of the ban on charging consumers more abroad than at home.

But the report shows that this hasn’t happened—at least, not on average or in most countries. Average consumer costs for calls and data have fallen by between 4 and 20 per cent since ‘roam like at home’ was introduced. This does mask some nuances: costs for consumers have risen in Bulgaria, Ireland, Latvia, Malta and Sweden, while they have fallen in 12 countries, and stayed about the same in the rest.

If costs had already come down so far, why did usage increase so much when the roaming price cap kicked in? The report suggests people were still either refusing to pay any extra costs, no matter how small, or feared doing something wrong and being stuck with a massive bill. It says that the proportion of people who never use roaming data dropped from 42 per cent before the introduction of the cap to just 19 per cent now, and that a survey found that 62 per cent of people knew about the cap.

So that’s consumers, but what about providers? Here the report is less conclusive, while other analyses suggest a mixed bag.

One survey by the software company Mobileum found that 76 per cent of providers said that usage increases had not made up for the fall in costs, while 22 per cent said the opposite. Separately, industry expert Mikaël Schachne reported that positive results for consumers had boosted brand loyalty and enabled providers to sell them more services. “There is widespread acceptance that any move to increase mobile usage is a good thing,” he concluded.

The European Commission agrees. Digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: Today we can see the tangible benefits following the abolition of roaming charges. Europe is now a reality for people using their mobile phones freely when travelling abroad.”

In other words: go roam.

Words: Craig Nicholson
Image: European Commission

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