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How does mobile roaming work?

When UK mobile users travel abroad and continue to use their mobile services, often incurring surcharges, they are using retail roaming services. For this to be possible, their UK mobile company must conclude commercial agreements with foreign operators to use their networks (known as wholesale roaming). In 2007 the European Union (EU) responded to unjustifiably high retail and wholesale roaming charges by introducing regulated maximum price caps for both. Since then, these caps have been periodically reviewed and lowered.

The abolition of roaming charges in the EU

Since 15 June 2017 roaming charges in the EU have been abolished. This means that mobile customers are now able to use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data throughout the EU (and the European Economic Area (EEA)) without incurring additional charges. To make this commercially sustainable for operators the EU has allowed operators to guard against abusive or anomalous usage through a Fair Use Regulation, which means that there are a number of exceptions to the policy.

Possible impact of Brexit on roaming

The Government has indicated that the abolition of roaming charges will continue to apply in the UK until it leaves the EU. Following Brexit, a number of scenarios are possible. Some commentators have warned that prices for wholesale and retail roaming services will increase if a replacement for the reciprocal price caps on wholesale roaming charges is not agreed. Companies which are part of large international groups will be partly insulated from such increases; other operators, particularly MVNOs, will not. The Government has indicated that Brexit will not mean an automatic re-introduction of retail roaming charges as some operators might continue to offer surcharge-free roaming services to customers.

Retaining current roaming benefits after Brexit?

The 2015 Government stated that the Great Repeal Bill would ensure that the same rules for roaming would apply after Brexit and confirmed that it is exploring a number of options. The ban on retail roaming charges could be retained in domestic law, but retaining the caps on wholesale charges would require a reciprocal agreement with the EU. The UK could continue to participate directly in the roaming regulations if it became a non-EU member of the EEA. Alternately, provisions on wholesale roaming caps could be included in a UK-EU free trade agreement. The former Government’s position and the impact of Brexit on mobile roaming charges was the subject of Parliamentary scrutiny in 2016/17, which has now concluded. The 2017 Government has not yet made any statement on this issue.

Global roaming

When the UK leaves the EU, it will be free to include roaming provisions in Free Trade Agreements with non-EU countries. These agreements could include provisions that would seek to achieve low roaming prices by mutual agreement. A number of precedents exist but closer analysis of their effects is needed.

This Briefing Paper applies to the whole of the UK as mobile roaming charges is not a devolved issue.

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