This paper will provide a brief overview of principles of international law, including how it works, its sources, and what happens when states breach their international obligations.
Currently, UK mobile customers can travel to the EU and use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data without incurring additional charges (subject to conditions such as fair use).
What would happen to mobile roaming charges in a no-deal Brexit?
What is mobile roaming?
Mobile roaming refers to when a mobile customer travels abroad and continues to use their home mobile service. For this to be possible, the home network must conclude commercial agreements with foreign operators to use their networks (known as wholesale roaming). Until 2017 most mobile operators charged customers additional fees for using the service abroad.
Since 15 July 2017 roaming charges in the European Economic Area (EEA) have been abolished (this means EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). In practice, this means that UK mobile customers can use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data throughout the EEA without incurring additional charges, subject to exceptions such as a fair use policy. For surcharge-free roaming to be commercially viable for operators, EU regulations set limits on the wholesale roaming charges mobile operators can charge each other.
Surcharge-free roaming would not be guaranteed in a no-deal Brexit
If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, then surcharge-free roaming in the EEA would not be guaranteed.
The Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 would come into force on exit day and remove the current requirement for UK mobile operators to provide surcharge-free roaming in the EEA. The Government states that this is necessary because the UK would no longer be part of the regulatory system for harmonised wholesale roaming charges across the EU. However, other consumer protection provisions not contingent on EU membership but contained in EU regulations, such as a default financial limit on mobile data usage abroad (set at £45) and requirements for mobile operators to inform customers when 80% and 100% of their data usage has been reached, will continue to apply in UK law. The Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations provides further detail.
Mobile operators may offer free roaming voluntarily
Mobile operators may choose to continue to offer surcharge free roaming after Brexit despite not being under a legal obligation to do so. This would be a commercial decision for each mobile operator.
Government guidance on mobile roaming after Brexit stated that as of April 2019 the four major UK mobile network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) had all stated that they had no current plans to change their approach to mobile roaming after the UK leaves the EU. Some operators have provided specific information on their websites, for example Three and EE.
Notwithstanding, there have been calls for the Government to seek binding commitments from mobile operators to continue to offer surcharge-free roaming and there are arguments that a trade deal with the EU that secures an agreement on surcharge-free roaming would provide certainty for consumers and operators.
What should consumers travelling to the EU do?
Because surcharge free roaming cannot be guaranteed, after Brexit consumers travelling to the EU will need to check the roaming policies of their mobile operator before they go abroad. Customers will need to ensure they are aware of what charges may be incurred and understand strategies for avoiding charges (such as turning off roaming services). Customers should also understand their rights to switch mobile operators and exit a contract, including what charges may apply.
The gov.uk page Mobile roaming after EU Exit (9 April 2019) provides information on how mobile roaming charges may be affected by a no deal Brexit and includes advice for consumers.
What about calls from the UK to the EU?
Phone calls from the UK to the EU are not technically “roaming” because the customer is at home, not abroad. As of 15 May 2019, consumer phone calls and text messages within the EU (both mobile and land line) including from a customers’ home country, are capped at no more than €0.19 per minute for calls and €0.06 per SMS (plus VAT).
In a no-deal Brexit, UK telecoms companies would not be legally required to maintain the capped charges; secondary legislation has been passed that would repeal the legislation that imposes the capped charges in the UK on exit day.
Government guidance: Mobile roaming after EU Exit (9 April 2019)
The House of Commons Library briefing paper: The abolition of mobile roaming charges and Brexit (6 July 2017) provides background information about the EU legislation on roaming charges.
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