A long-awaited law slashing European phone roaming fees has lumbered closer as a parliamentary committee rejected phone companies' pleas for mercy.
The European Parliament at its plenary session in May looks set to side with the change proposed by the European Commission, which is now backed by parliamentary committees, while only one committee has taken the industry side.
Germany also supports the Commission and hopes to sign off on the new law before the end of June when its six-month European Union presidency ends. However, some countries including France may try to get a better deal for mobile phone operators.
Mobile phone subscribers should pay €0.40 per minute for using their phone in an EU country other than their own, and €0.15 to receive a call while abroad, the committee decided Wednesday.
The prices are lower than the €0.50/€0.25 proposed by the Internal Market Committee of the European Parliament last month. The Commission proposed a range of between €0.40 and €0.50 per minute for calling and €0.20 to €0.25 for receiving calls, which would amount to an average cut in prices of about 70 percent across the E.U.
Prices currently start at around €1 per minute to call, and between some countries the price is around €3 per minute, a level which users have complained about.
Subscribers should automatically benefit from the new reduced prices when the law is passed, the Industry Committee said. This holds with the opinion of two other committees as well.
However, mobile phone operators have lobbied hard, arguing that the market, and not lawmakers, should set prices. In response, the Internal Market Committee has proposed that users should be required to manually opt in to the reduced tariff system.
"Roaming charges are set to tumble. This is a major success for European consumers and a clear signal to Europe's telecom industry," said the Parliament's chief rapporteur on this issue, Austrian Member of Parliament Paul Rübig, after the vote.
The vote was welcomed by BEUC, the pan-European consumer group. "Even if some of the results are still unsatisfactory, like for example the fact that this legislation would expire after three years, other points approved are a move in the right direction," it said in a statement.
The threat of price regulation to curb roaming costs has pushed some mobile operators including Vodafone Group PLC to cut costs unilaterally. Vodafone claims its roaming tariffs have fallen by over 40 percent after it introduced its Passport program.
Fearing a pro-consumer vote in the parliamentary committee, the GSM Association (GSMA) Monday warned politicians not to meddle in its market.
"The mobile industry and international roaming charges must not become a political football between Parliament and Council," said Rob Conway, CEO of the GSMA.
"At a time when Europe is trying to stimulate investment and innovation, these inappropriate and inconsistent proposals are becoming increasingly removed from the economic realities of the mobile market. I urge the Parliament and the Council not to risk introducing distortions into the roaming market that will remove incentives to compete and penalise some customers."
Once the European Parliament and the national governments have agreed on the law, it will immediately come into force throughout the EU. If Germany's timetable doesn't slip, the law will be in place in time for consumers to benefit from the lower prices when they take their summer holidays this year.
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