Cellphone Roaming Charges End in Europe. Many Respond With a Yawn.

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The landmark policy shift, which enters into force on Thursday, comes as Europe faces pressure to speed up the overhaul of its wider digital economy to keep pace with the likes of the United States and China. But the experience of Ms. Krastanova, and many others like her, has many wondering why the region’s policy makers took 10 years — and invested significant political capital — to end roaming charges when it is not a daily concern for many of Europe’s 500 million citizens.

Europe’s decade-long struggle to end cellphone roaming charges began before the original iPhone was released. But it involved often bitter lobbying between the region’s cellular operators and consumer groups over how much people should pay to use their phones internationally. The changes will affect only people with European cellphone contracts, meaning Americans and others traveling in the region will still face costly charges.

The move is part of broader efforts to unite the region digitally.

Under proposals that include things like overhauling people’s online privacy rights and allowing individuals to watch digital content from national broadcasters while outside their home countries, the creation of a so-called digital single market has become a crucial pillar to Europe’s economic growth. The goal, according to policy makers, is to give Europeans simple and unfettered access to services like movie streaming, online shopping and cloud computing no matter where they live.


Like many Europeans, Albena Krastanova of Bulgaria does not travel often enough to benefit from the new measure. Credit Boryana Dimitrova Katsarova for The New York Times

Critics point to data showing that a minority of Europeans regularly travel beyond their national borders to charge that the changes may offer limited benefit to most Europeans’ daily online activities.

“There’s just a small percentage of consumers who will benefit from the scrapping of roaming charges,” said Luca Schiavoni, a telecom regulation analyst at Ovum, a technology research group, in London. “It’s for the few, not the many.”

Defenders of Europe’s digital policies reject such criticism, saying that removing cellphone roaming charges took time because it represented the bedrock for the rest of the region’s digital plans. It is hard to watch Netflix or shop on Amazon while traveling, they say, if you cannot first connect to the internet.

For Viviane Reding, a former European commissioner who shepherded the roaming overhaul through Brussels’s complex legislative process, the reduction in people’s cellphone bills is a marked improvement. Even if Europeans travel abroad only a couple of times a year, they now can avoid extortionately high prices for even the briefest of calls or internet browsing.

And while the roaming rules took longer than many had first expected, Europe’s other digital proposals, she said, were still on track.

“It’s the biggest change Europe has ever made digitally,” said Ms. Reding, now a member of the European Parliament. “The new rules will apply to every company operating in the whole European market.”

Matt Chapam is one European who is eager for roaming to end.

A British software engineer who moved to Amsterdam last year, Mr. Chapman, 28, had routinely paid hefty charges when traveling back to Britain to see his family.

When the new rules come into force, his Dutch cellphone contract of 25 euros, or $28, a month will give him almost unlimited internet browsing and phone calls wherever he is in Europe. That compares to almost weekly top-ups of €20 that Mr. Chapman previously made when using his cellphone abroad.


Cellphone users in Sofia, Bulgaria. Credit Boryana Dimitrova Katsarova for The New York Times

“It’s nice to never have to worry about that again,” he said.

Yet, like most changes to European digital policy, the scrapping of roaming charges is by no means the end of the debate. Consumer groups and European officials are already voicing concerns that people may still see costly fees on their cellphone bills.

While there will be strict caps on how much telecom operators can charge when individuals are outside their home countries, cellphone carriers can increase other fees, including phone calls and text messages to other European countries when people are not traveling, to recoup potential lost income.

Lise Fuhr, director general of ETNO, a telecom industry group, said companies were offering competitive prices across Europe. But, she added, operators needed investment-friendly policies — not further regulation — if Europe wanted to build much-needed high-speed broadband networks and other digital infrastructure.

European officials, though, have warned companies against price increases on services not linked to the end of cellphone roaming, saying that regulators may step in if they see potential unfair practices.

“We’re trying to create a Europe without digital borders,” said Roberto Viola, director general of the European Commission’s digital policy unit.

That message will be music to the ears of Ondine Ripka, a French national living in Belgium who recently signed up for a new cellphone contract with Orange, a European carrier.

While her overall monthly bill has fallen more than 50 percent, to €40, compared with what she paid to her previous operator, Ms. Ripka said certain charges, including sending text messages from Belgium to other European countries, were now significantly more expensive.

In response, Orange said it was fully compliant with European rules, but that it had made changes to some of its products to better represent how consumers used its services.

“Europe is pushing hard to make this happen,” said Ms. Ripka, 41, a legal adviser for Doctors Without Borders. “But there are still loopholes that companies are taking advantage of.”

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