Mobile roaming and the four stages of grief

Source: N. (Neelie) Kroes i, published on Tuesday, July 16 2013.

On Tuesday of last week I announced a package of measures to be presented in September - for a telecommunications single market, bringing down barriers to support a sector critical for our future growth.

The focus of some of the immediate reactions to this speech has been on mobile roaming. Operators have long resisted attempts to stop them charging well over the odds on roaming rates. And it appears that they are continuing to do so.

I find this curious. Although roaming actually represents a relatively small proportion of telecoms revenues, it is a disproportionate irritant for travellers; an unnecessary reminder of borders that are supposed to have disappeared; and a significant obstacle to a digital single market.

Operators rightly point out the importance of investment. And it’s true that Europe badly needs new fast networks. But this has very little to do with roaming.

Investment is weak in Europe; but it has been so for some time. In particular, investment was hardly stronger in the era of data roaming rip-offs - an era which, let’s remember, only ended in 2012. The fact is, if anything, roaming revenues tend to contribute to cash expenditure rather than investment capability. Likewise, bringing down roaming costs over recent years has not had an impact on domestic call prices; which have continued to fall in the EU’s competitive market.

I am taking measures to improve investment: like through wholesale price stability and regulatory certainty - and will shortly be coming forward with further measures to remove single market barriers, like consistent obligations, harmonised access products and coordinated release of spectrum across the EU: helping operators plan on a large scale.

But it’s time we moved away from seeing this as a win-lose debate. Telecoms providers are not in competition with their customers; rather, the two groups depend on each other. And neither side benefits from antagonism. When companies offer their customers better services - higher quality at fairer prices - everyone is better off; consumers value what they get, and are prepared to pay accordingly. Citizens shouldn’t see telecoms providers as in opposition to their interests: on the contrary. In a digital age, consumers crave seamless connectivity: the telecoms sector can give them it - and boost their own prospects too.

Many in the telecoms sector - and I myself — see a true single market as the answer: bringing down the borders and reducing unnecessary fragmentation to unlock economies of scale. Yet here’s what I find really strange about this debate: in such a true single market, roaming would not even make sense. Yet complaining about the whole package because of that fairly obvious result really is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

They say that when faced with loss there are several stages of grief - from denial to anger to bargaining to acceptance. I suppose that applies equally to a person facing a divorce or a company facing the loss of a cash cow. For me we shouldn’t be clutching onto old practices and rehearsing the arguments of the past: we should be grabbing the opportunities of the future.

That’s what the European Parliament’s ITRE Committee recognised on Tuesday when it voted a remarkable 51 to zero to end EU roaming once and for all.

I am looking towards the future: it’s time more stakeholders did too. Time the telecoms sector sees the benefit of offering their customers fair prices for fast networks in a connected continent. That’s the win-win outcome. And that is the package I intend to put forward in September.