EU set to pass new mobile roaming law in record time

Operators will start charging their subscribers by the second, with an initial charging period of 30 seconds

The cost of calling, texting and accessing the Internet via mobile phones while abroad is about to get cheaper for European residents, following an agreement Tuesday among lawmakers over the shape of a new mobile roaming law.

Members of the European Parliament and representatives of the 27 national governments reached an informal agreement to cut prices from July 1. The compromise they struck must be rubber-stamped by both institutions, probably in April, but the hard negotiating is over, said Adina-Ioana Valean, a Romanian member of the European Parliament involved in the negotiations.

"I am pleased that today we have made an important step towards reaching an agreement that strikes a balance between the interests of all the stakeholders involved in the proposed roaming regulation. I am hopeful that all parties will endorse a concrete first-reading agreement so that European consumers can fully benefit from this new regulation by the beginning of this summer," Valean said.

Assuming that the compromise reached Tuesday is endorsed next month this will be the fastest ever piece of legislation to pass through the European Union lawmaking machine. The initial text was drafted by the European Commission last September.

The compromise sets ceiling limits on the prices telecom operators can charge for making and receiving calls while outside the subscribers' home country.

From July 1 this year the ceiling will be EUR0.43 (US$0.80) per minute, excluding VAT, for calling and EUR0.19 per minute for receiving a call. A year later the maximum roaming costs will drop to EUR0.39 and EUR0.15, respectively, and in 2011 they will drop to EUR0.35 and EUR0.1.

In an earlier roaming law passed in 2007, the prices were capped at EUR0.46 for calls made abroad and EUR0.22 for calls received abroad.

In addition to reducing their roaming prices, operators will have to start charging their subscribers by the second, with an initial charging period of 30 seconds. Many operators round up the length of calls, forcing their subscribers to pay for call time they never used. It was estimated late last year that subscribers pay for 24 percent more than the minutes they actually use when making calls.

Data roaming charges are set to fall, too. From July 1 operators will have to reduce the roaming cost incurred when sending a basic text message from another country to a maximum EUR0.11 per message. Average prices across the EU stood at EUR0.29 late last year.

In 2007, EU citizens sent 2.5 billion text, or SMS, messages generating EUR800 million in revenue for their mobile-phone operators,

according to the Commission, the Union's executive body responsible for drafting the roaming laws. It estimated that the cost of roaming texts can be 10 times more than sending a message from within your own country.

Meanwhile, sending e-mail and pictures or Web-browsing from mobile phones will be regulated at a wholesale level, instead of at the retail end. There will be a price cap for the rates the host operator can charge a roaming customer's home operator.

From July 1 that ceiling will be EUR1 per megabyte of data downloaded. This will fall to EUR0.80 and EUR0.50 in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

To prevent bill shocks - nasty surprises on the subscriber's monthly bill - roaming customers would be able to opt free of charge for a maximum limit of EUR50 on their bills from March 1, 2010.

Telecom providers will have to warn their customers when 80 percent of the EUR50 limit has been reached. Once the limit is reached, another notification will be sent out, indicating the procedure to be followed if the customer wishes to continue data roaming. If the user does not respond the telecom company will have to cease all data roaming services.

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