Travellers to Europe pay sky-high prices for browsing the web on the move. Here's what you need to know about the charges and how the costs are coming down.
Roaming, eh? I like to get out into the countryside
That's nice but you can put your hiking boots away. All you need for data roaming is a sturdy wallet. EU data roaming describes how much telecoms providers charge foreign travellers for accessing the internet over their networks in Europe. Those charges apply to anyone downloading data via a mobile phone or tablet SIM card or a mobile dongle in EU countries.
Let me guess: it's not cheap
No, it's not. Mobile internet can cost travellers hundreds of times more than in their home country. For example, some UK networks charge travellers in Europe as much as £3,000 ($4,700) to download 1GB of data using a mobile phone - the equivalent of downloading about 200 songs. A more typical figure charged by UK operators for EU data roaming is about £800 ($1,250) per 1GB of data used, still vastly more than the £10 ($16) or less it costs to download a similar quantity of data in the UK.
And how is that fair?
That's exactly the question that EU politicians have been asking, and they're about to start capping the amount that travellers are charged. The European Commission has proposed regulations to reduce the cost to people travelling in the EU of using the internet and making mobile calls from July 2012.
Just what sort of reduction are you talking about
Prices will fall to no more than €0.50 ($0.66) per megabyte - about €500 for 1GB - if the original EC proposals are accepted. But they could fall even further, to no more than €0.20 ($0.26) per megabyte - about €200 ($260) for 1GB - if recent amendments to the EC proposals go through. Users will also be billed per kilobyte used, rather than per megabyte, which will reduce charges for unused data. Making a call would cost a maximum of €0.24 ($0.32) a minute and receiving a call €0.10 ($0.13) - while sending text messages would cost a maximum of €0.10 ($0.13).
Prices will begin to go down from July this year and, will fall to the proposed minimum levels from July 2014, and remain fixed until 2016, or 2017 if amendments to the EC proposals are accepted. The final decision on the level of the caps will be decided by summer this year.The EC also expects that proposed competition-enhancing structural measures, such as letting customers choose roaming deals separately from their domestic tariffs, will deliver prices significantly below the regulatory caps.
Other safeguards to stop overcharging are already in place. Since 1 July 2010, EU consumers' data-roaming bills have been limited to €50 ($66) a month excluding tax - unless they opt for a higher or lower limit. Telecoms providers also have to warn users when they reach 80 per cent of their data-roaming limit, and cut users' mobile internet connections once they hit that limit - unless the customer instructs them not to.
It will still cost more than I pay at home
It will, and in an open letter to UK communications minister Ed Vaizey, mobile operator Three, price comparison site uSwitch and three trade bodies have argued that the EC needs to further curb charges.
"Using your mobile phone in Europe could still end up costing more than the trip itself," the letter says.
They argue that the EC should lower the caps on how much mobile operators can charge one another to let each other's customers use their networks, which they hope will further reduce retail prices.
Under proposed EC law, these wholesale costs will fall to no more than €100 per ($132) 1GB from 2014, and remain fixed until 2022.
However in the letter the consortium says the proposed caps do not go far enough: "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."
The consortium instead backs amendments to the proposed regulations that would set wholesale data rates at about €50 ($66) for 1GB of data from 2014. The amendments will be considered by European MEPs and ministers at the end of this month.
How can the operators justify the charges?
It depends who you ask. When TechRepublic sister site ZDNet UK spoke to mobile operators last year, it received two different accounts about whether operators need such an enormous mark-up on data, in some cases running into thousands of per cent.
Hugh Davies, regulatory chief at mobile operator 3, said EU data-roaming charges levied on mobile users are hugely inflated above the 1p to 3p ($.02 to $.05) per megabyte it costs the operator, calling them "way too high".
But David Gannon, senior expert for global products at T-Mobile, said the operators need some way of turning a profit on the cost of infrastructure and spectrum licences.
It sounds like the price is heading down whatever the outcome
Indeed it is, but that's no reason not to be thrifty the next time you fancy doing a spot of web browsing on the French Riviera. Remember, every kilobyte counts.