The Government has indicated to Sky News that British consumers may have to pay roaming and data charges when travelling in the EU after Brexit, unless a deal can be reached.
British travellers have not had to pay these charges on their mobile phone bills since June 2017, when they were abolished after changes to European regulation. The costs were considerable – an estimated £350m per year.
Last week the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK would leave the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM).
The DSM aims to eliminate digital regulatory barriers between EU member states, including data roaming charges.
The PM said in her Mansion House speech: The UK will not be part of the EU’s Digital Single Market, which will continue to develop after our withdrawal from the EU.
This is a fast evolving, innovative sector, in which the UK is a world leader. It will be particularly important to have domestic flexibility, to ensure the regulatory environment can always respond nimbly and ambitiously to new developments.
Until last week, the Government had not confirmed that Britain will be leaving the DSM.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has now confirmed to Sky News that this would likely entail the restoration of roaming charges, unless a deal could be reached.
A spokesman said: The Government is committed to securing the best deal for British consumers.
Arrangements on mobile roaming would be subject to any negotiations, however, a future partnership between the UK and EU is clearly in the interests of both sides.
The Government also said that consumers will have become accustomed to enjoying their mobile phones without extra charges for over two years by Brexit day and that this would drive consumer expectation and behaviour.
They also pointed to the fact that two operators, Vodafone and Three, have publicly committed to not reimposing charges.
However, this idea has not been viewed favourably by most telecoms companies.
In late 2016, Sharon White, Chief Executive of Ofcom said that leaving the EU without putting alternative arrangements in place would mean our mobile operators may be exposed to unfair costs, and our people and businesses could end up paying more than our European neighbours.
The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee has also said it does not believe that mobile operators will be able to choose not to reimpose charges – technical reasons will mean their operating costs will be pushed up considerably after being pushed out of the European regulatory framework.
In terms of finding other arrangements, there really is no precedent for extending roaming charge abolition to non-EU countries.
One suggestion has been a bilateral agreement between the EU and the UK, but EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger told the European Parliament that a standalone UK-EU roaming agreement would be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules.
Another idea has been adopting the status quo into a Free Trade Agreement, however, no free trade agreement to date has incorporated roaming regulation.
That is even the case with Switzerland which enjoys extensive economic links and integration with the EU.
The only countries which enjoy travelling without roaming charges in the EU are countries like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein but they are in the single market through membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the PM has ruled this out for Britain.
British travellers may have to start thinking about leaving their phones on airplane mode beyond the tarmac of the runway.
(c) Sky News 2018: Roaming charges may be back after Brexit