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European mobile-phone bills set to tumble

EU mobile-phone roaming law to be ratified

A European law cutting the costs of mobile-phone roaming fees today moved closer to adoption. A European Parliament committee supported the change proposed by the EC (European Commission), despite pressure from phone companies.

At its plenary session in May the European Parliament will support the Commission's more consumer friendly approach. And now that three parliamentary committees have backed the proposed law, only one committee is supporting the industry approach.

Germany also supports the EC and hopes to be able to sign off on the new law before its six-month European Union presidency ends in June. However, some countries including France may try to get a better deal for mobile phone operators.

Mobile-phone subscribers should pay €0.40 (27p) per minute for using their phone in an EU country other than their own, and €0.15 to receive a call while abroad, the committee decided yesterday.

The prices are lower than the €0.50/€0.25 proposed by the Internal Market Committee of the European Parliament last month and already adopted by some phone providers. The Commission proposed a range of between €0.40 and €0.50 per minute for calling and €0.20 to €0.25 for receiving calls, which would amount to an average cut in prices of about 70 percent across the EU.

Prices currently start at around €1 per minute to call. Between some countries the current price is €3 per minute.

Subscribers should automatically benefit from the reduced prices when the law is passed, the Industry Committee said. This holds with the opinion of two other committees as well.

However, after intense lobbying by mobile-phone operators that argue that the market, and not lawmakers, should be setting prices, the Internal Market Committee wanted to make users manually opt-in to the reduced tariff system.

"Roaming charges are set to tumble. This is a major success for European consumers and a clear signal to Europe's telecom industry," said the Parliament's chief rapporteur on this issue, Austrian Member of Parliament Paul Rübig, after the vote.

The vote was welcomed by BEUC, the pan-European consumer group. "Even if some of the results are still unsatisfactory, like for example the fact that this legislation would expire after three years, other points approved are a move in the right direction," it said in a statement.

The threat of price regulation to curb roaming costs has pushed some mobile operators including Vodafone Group PLC to cut costs unilaterally. Vodafone claims its roaming tariffs have fallen by more than 40 percent after it introduced its Passport program.

Fearing a pro-consumer vote in the parliamentary committee, the GSM Association on Monday warned politicians not to meddle in its market.

"The mobile industry and international roaming charges must not become a political football between Parliament and Council," said Rob Conway, CEO of the GSMA.

"At a time when Europe is trying to stimulate investment and innovation, these inappropriate and inconsistent proposals are becoming increasingly removed from the economic realities of the mobile market. I urge the Parliament and the Council not to risk introducing distortions into the roaming market that will remove incentives to compete and penalise some customers."

Once the European Parliament and the national governments have agreed on the law, it will immediately come into force throughout the EU. If Germany's timetable doesn't slip, the law will be in place in time for consumers to benefit from the lower prices when they take their summer holidays this year.


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