UK mobile network 3 has launched a campaign to lower mobile roaming charges in Europe with an open letter to the government minister responsible for telecoms regulation, Ed Vaizey MP.
The mobile network's missive claims that a European plan to standardise the charges customers pay for using packet data networks while outside national borders, dubbed 'Roaming III' does not go far enough in reducing the risk of large unforeseen bills.
While the rates for data use will fall steadily, by 2014 a customer using 1GB of data abroad will still be charged around £400, compared to an average UK price of around £10, according to 3.
"Three’s customers make the most of their smartphones, but data roaming charges force them to limit their internet use the moment they leave the UK. High wholesale data charges are the cause," said David Dyson, CEO of 3 UK. "We believe that wholesale data charges should be capped at €30 per GB or less to make the mobile internet accessible wherever consumers want to use it. With average data use for our smartphone customers approaching 1GB a month this is a real consumer issue."
The root of the problem, according to the open letter, is the high wholesale prices that networks charge each other to allow subscribers access to their network. The signatories contend that the statutory limit on wholesale prices is to be set at a level more than 10 times higher than domestic retail.
"To date the Commission has been far more effective at addressing the disparity between domestic and roaming rates on voice than data," claims 3's Guy Middleton. "In a market dominated by smartphones, there is a great opportunity to drive their use through effective wholesale data regulation so people no longer feel they have to change their behaviour simply because they have crossed a border."
The surcharges may be having a damaging effect on international business.
"Large, and particularly small businesses, feel the effects of the cost of downloading data and many place tight restrictions on the use of mobile devices by their executives when travelling abroad," the letter reads. "It is prohibitively expensive and, in the worst case scenario, stops firms from doing business abroad entirely."
The network's move has garnered some support from trade bodies. The letter has been signed by dignitaries including Jacqui Brookes, CEO of the Federation of Communication Services, Nick White, executive vice president of the International Telecommunications User Group, Professor Neil Hoose of the Federation for Small business and Richard Lloyd, executive director of consumer organisation Which?
The campaign may also receive some support from European Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who has in the past described roaming charges as a "rip-off".
"Competition is still very weak. Customers still get a raw deal when they cross borders. Operators still enjoy outrageous margins, particularly on data downloads," said Kroes. "Within a Single Market, there is simply no justification for huge mark-ups, just because you've crossed an invisible internal border that is supposed to have disappeared. And just because customers have little or no choice in the matter."
Several MEPs have already tabled amendments to the legislation that would see roaming charges reduced to less than 10 cents per megabyte.
The signatories however do not believe that this goes far enough, calling on Vaizey to "use your vote in the European Council to support an even greater reduction in data prices for people and businesses travelling abroad".