This briefing paper explores the Northern Ireland Protocol, how it has been implemented, the temporary grace periods introduced to help ease trading problems, and negotiations between the EU and UK in 2021 on possible changes to the Protocol.
Up to 31 December 2020 UK mobile customers can travel to the EU and use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data without incurring additional charges.
From the end of the transition period (1 January 2021), there will be no obligation on UK mobile operators to guarantee surcharge-free roaming. Consumers travelling to the EU will need to check the roaming policies of their mobile operator before they go abroad. The UK’s four major mobile network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) had all stated that they had no current plans to change their mobile roaming policies (as of October 2020).
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 operator must conclude commercial agreements with foreign operators to use their networks (known as wholesale roaming). Until 2017 most mobile operators charged customers for using their 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). 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.
In practice, this meant that UK mobile customers could 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. This continued through the transition period, due to the Withdrawal Agreement.
Surcharge-free roaming is not guaranteed after the end of the transition period.
The Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 would come into force at the end of the transition period and remove the legal requirement for UK mobile operators to provide surcharge-free roaming in the EEA. The Government states this is necessary because the UK would no longer be part of the EU system of harmonised wholesale charges.
Other consumer protection provisions that are not contingent on EU membership but that stem from EU regulations will continue to apply in UK law. These include 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.
The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (24 December 2020) includes a commitment that the Parties shall “cooperate on promoting transparent and reasonable rates” for international roaming services. The provision is similar to that put forward by the UK Government in draft trade agreement text in May 2020. The UK’s draft text also proposed a commitment to review the need for roaming regulations within three years, which was not included in the final agreement.
Mobile operators may offer free roaming voluntarily
Mobile operators may choose to continue to offer surcharge free roaming after the end of the transition period 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 16 October 2020 the four major UK mobile network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) had all stated that they had no current plans to change their mobile roaming policies.
There had been calls for the Government to seek legally binding commitments from mobile operators to continue to offer surcharge-free roaming.
What should consumers travelling to the EU do?
Because surcharge free roaming cannot be guaranteed, from 1 January 2021 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 Using your mobile in EU and EEA countries after the UK leaves the EU (16 October 2020) provides further guidance.
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)).
As for roaming, from 1 January 2021, UK telecoms companies will not be legally required to maintain the capped charges; secondary legislation has been passed that would repeal the legislation that imposes the capped charges from 1 January 2021.
Government guidance: Using your mobile in EU and EEA countries after the UK leaves the EU (16 October 2020)
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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