Mobile web access price caps in Europe 'set too high'

Three, uSwitch and three trade bodies urge Ed Vaizey to use his vote at ministers' meeting to toughen price curbs

The communications minister, Ed Vaizey, is being urged to fight a change to European Union rules that will mean travellers could still be charged hundreds of pounds to browse the web from their phones.

The European commission is about to set price curbs that will fix the cost of using a phone while travelling until 2022, but the cuts proposed will still mean mobile internet access is hundreds of times more expensive abroad than at home.

In an open letter to Vaizey, the UK mobile operator Three, the price comparison site uSwitch and three trade bodies say the cuts must go further.

"Using your mobile phone in Europe could still end up costing more than the trip itself," they warn. They ask Vaizey to use his vote when representatives of European communications ministers meet this month.

Customers wanting to access the web on their phone currently pay astronomical prices, with some networks charging the equivalent of £3,000 for 1GB (gigabyte) of data – enough to download 200 songs or watch two hours of video. The same amount of data at home in the UK costs less than £10.

The European commission wants to impose caps on how much mobile operators can charge each other to let customers roam on their networks while travelling, in the hope this will reduce retail prices.

The caps are intended to last until 2022, and will cut the wholesale cost for 1GB to just over £400 by 2014. But this is still hundreds of times more expensive than the retail price UK customers pay at home.

MEPs have tabled amendments that suggest reductions to less than €0.10 a megabyte – about £100 for 1GB – and will vote on 28 February. Ministers' representatives will vote the following day.

If costs remain high, smaller businesses will keep placing tight restrictions on how much their staff can use mobile phones while travelling, the letter warns. "Data usage on mobile devices is exploding and the commission's proposals in their current form do not address the demand for data in 2012, never mind 2022. These price levels do not encourage competition and hence could put a brake on growth and competitiveness of EU as a whole."

With the average customer expected to consume 1.3GB a month over the next three years, the commission's proposed caps would still lead to huge bills and do nothing to counter the higher cost of using phones outside the eurozone.

Since smartphones became popular there have been reports of holidaymakers coming home to bills running into thousands of pounds. Last year, Europe imposed a €50 cap on data spending. Internet access is automatically choked off after the limit is breached, unless by prior agreement. But holidaymakers outside the eurozone are not guaranteed such protection.

The average price of 1GB in a European country has fallen to €7 for those using their phone at home, according to the research firm Berg Insight. Three charges as little as £1 a GB in Britain, but its customers pay the equivalent of £1,300 for the same amount abroad. O2 and Orange charge pay-monthly customers £3 a MB when they are on the continent, the equivalent of £3,000 for 1GB.

If customers remember to pre-order, there are cheaper deals available. Orange charges £3 for 30MB in Europe – enough for one and a half hours online or 30 emails. A spokesperson said: "Next year we plan to introduce new controls, such as spending caps, for all areas outside of the EU … to allow all our customers greater spend control in the future and prevent them incurring unexpectedly high charges."


Juliette Garside

The GuardianTramp

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