Could Brexit Result in Higher Roaming Charges?

What Leaving the European Union Could Mean for Travellers

A recent report from the Association of British Travel Agents and Deloitte suggests that UK consumers could suffer from higher roaming tariffs should they vote to leave the European Union in this month’s referendum.

This is an interesting view and one that could be debated. There’s no doubt that being a member of the EU has meant that British consumers have benefited hugely from lower roaming charges mandated in recent years. By June 2017, roaming between EU states will be abolished altogether, meaning that citizens will pay the same abroad as at home.

Should the UK vote for Brexit however, mobile operators would no longer be accountable to Brussels’ regulation on roaming. Under pressure from declining revenue in traditional areas such as voice and messaging, they would be foolish not to at least consider seizing an opportunity to reapply charges.

In reality however, this would be much easier said than done in a hugely competitive market that includes a number of strong virtual providers. Indeed, some operators have already gone a long way toward abolishing roaming ahead of the ruling next June. Backtracking would be extremely unpopular and probably only work if operators moved in unison. Even then, Ofcom may still be within its rights to clamp down if it deemed the move unnecessary.

Already more than 3 million customers of Three have taken advantage of inclusive roaming since the operator launched its Feel at Home offer in 2013. Significantly, it includes popular tourist and business destinations beyond Brussels’ jurisdiction, such as Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the US. In my view, this demonstrates a long-term strategy to offer low-cost roaming charges, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Other UK providers have followed suit. Carphone Warehouse currently offers inclusive roaming in 29 countries, including Australia and the US, through its virtual service, iD. Meanwhile, Vodafone last month moved to largely abolish roaming across Europe. Tesco Mobile has a similar offer, although it is only available during the summer, a possible indication that it will review its options after the UK goes to the polls.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is Swisscom’s recent decision to virtually abolish roaming within the EU for its Natel Infinity Plus subscribers. Given that Switzerland is not a member state and has a hugely dominant market position, this was a surprising move that suggests the value of roaming may be overestimated by some commentators.

Indeed, Swisscom recently released data that infers greater usage could be making up for the shortfall in revenue from roaming charges. It said that Natel Infinity Plus subscribers consume four-times more data, send three-times as many SMS messages and make twice the number of phone calls as customers on standard packages.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, operators could have some delicate decisions to make about their future roaming strategy.