MSE: Ofcom should protect consumers against roaming costs

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Ofcom has been urged to introduce regulations that protect consumers from expensive roaming charges after the majority of operators reneged on promises not to reintroduce charges in the EU following Brexit.

EU regulations that allowed any citizen of a member state to use their voice, text, and data allowances in another were first introduced in 2017 but there were no provisions for the continuation of the policy in the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU.

Despite constant protestations that they had no intention of withdrawing free EU roaming, EE, Three and Vodafone have all done so in the past year, as have several Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) including Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile.

UK EU roaming

This leaves Virgin Media O2 as the only major operator to have continued the policy and is promoting it as a key differentiator in its marketing materials.

MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis says the situation has led to confusion among consumers, especially since operators are under no obligation to inform customers of charges when they use their phone abroad.

A separate study published last month suggested Only two fifths of customers feel confident they understand how much they will pay for roaming within the EU, while worryingly 51% don’t even know whether their operator has reintroduced roaming charges.

In lieu of inclusive roaming, many operators offer daily passes that give customers data and calls for a flat fee. However, while some operators offer passes in the EU that last from 24 hours from purchase, similar passes in the rest of the world only last until 23:59 UK time. This means a pass bought at 23:58 would only be valid for one minute.

Lewis says the actions of mobile operators since the end of EU regulations gives him no confidence that the industry can act in the interest of consumers without intervention.

“I've no faith in mobile firms to self-regulate,” he said. “When we left the EU, they promised not to reintroduce European roaming charges… yet most of the big networks have broken that promise.

“So our report calls on Ofcom to not trust voluntary promises – we need to reintroduce the formal, compulsory consumer protections.

“And it's time too, to define time. We need to ban a daily roaming fee charged for use 'up to [23:59] without even mentioning in which time zone. Instead, we recommend all providers must define a roaming 'day' as a 24-hour period from first use, clearly explain that in the arrival text, and alert customers at least an hour before the daily charges end.”

"Ofcom is currently considering the options for future roaming protections for customers, looking at the risk of consumer harm and how to best protect customers in this area,” added an Ofcom spokesperson. “We will take these findings into account as part of this process."

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.