FOREIGN HOLIDAYS are on hold for now, as pandemic restrictions tighten. But when Britons are allowed to travel again they could be in for a nasty surprise. Since 2017 they, like other citizens of the European Union, have enjoyed the right to use their mobile phones anywhere in Europe at no additional cost. Brexit means that, starting this month, they may have to pay.
Almost everyone is unhappy about this. Remainers cite the return of roaming fees as yet another of Brexit’s downsides. Firms complain it will make them less competitive abroad. Eurosceptic and Europhile newspapers alike have warned their readers to beware new charges which, as one put it, risk putting “the Great British holiday selfie at stake.”
Yet hanging up on European regulators could make the British mobile market fairer and more efficient. The EU’s rules forbid phone companies from charging their customers for roaming, but they allow firms to charge each other, within limits. A local phone network may bill the roaming customer’s network up to €3 ($3.65) per gigabyte of data downloaded—about enough for an hour of Netflix. Parking the children in front of “Peppa Pig” in order to investigate the minibar is therefore free as far as the holidaying customer is concerned, but their network faces a bill.
Phone companies can make back some of this money by charging equivalent fees to foreigners roaming on their turf. But because Britons use their phones abroad more than EU citizens use theirs in the United Kingdom, British phone companies run a deficit. They make it up by charging more for other services, with the result that the most prolific roamers—business travellers and those who holiday a lot—have their overseas Zooming, streaming and selfie-posting subsidised by the rest.
Freed from European rules, British networks will be able to offer consumers more choice. The main operators say they have no plans to reintroduce roaming fees. But in time they will probably offer cheaper, no-frills packages for those who don’t plan to travel, and pricier bundles for those who do, believes Karen Egan of Enders Analysis, a research firm. “It’s something that’s very valuable to some customers but not to others, so it makes perfect sense to price differentiate,” she says.
European networks will be free to raise the fees they charge British operators, since those firms are no longer protected by the EU’s wholesale-price limits. Before regulators launched their assault on roaming 15 years ago, a lack of competition meant that fees were sky-high in some markets. But today, partly thanks to regulators’ interventions, all the main EU markets have at least three phone operators and most have four. That ought to be enough to drive wholesale roaming prices close to cost, reckons Ms Egan.
The greatest risk to phone users will be in countries with a less competitive phone business and a surplus of British visitors, such as Greece and Portugal. But even there they have some protection. British phone companies are now required to alert customers nearing the end of their data allowance, so they do not spend an accidental fortune while glued to TikTok.
Making roaming “free” was always about politics as well as economics. Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner who began the war on roaming charges in 2006, declared at the time: “It is only when using your mobile phone abroad that you realise there are still borders in Europe.” Bringing Europeans together by making it cheaper for them to chat is a worthy enough political aim. But abolishing roaming fees altogether has meant that the costs are transferred from jetsetters to stay-at-homes. It will be no bad thing if Brexit forces Britons to pay for their own holiday selfies.■
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This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “The right to roam”