Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Brexit May Breathe New Life Into Roaming Charges Set to Expire

  • Lawyer: Vote results in ‘uncertainty’ on U.K. mobile fees
  • Vodafone, BT say much depends on U.K.-EU negotiations

British mobile-phone customers bidding good-bye to the European Union may find it harder to shake the roaming charges that are set to be abolished next year within the 28-member bloc.

The EU has capped the fees -- surcharges incurred by customers traveling outside their home country who use their handsets to call, text or surf the Internet -- and they will disappear altogether by mid-2017. While the two-year divorce process means U.K. carriers including BT Group Plc and Vodafone Group Plc will need to go along at first, possible roaming charges could be reinstated later, once the break is complete, said Kyriakos Fountoukakos, a lawyer for Herbert Smith Freehills LLP based in Brussels.

“This is another area of huge uncertainty brought about by Brexit,” Fountoukakos said Monday by e-mail.

A lot will depend on what agreements the U.K. negotiates on its way out, Fountoukakos said. The roaming regulation, which takes full effect in the middle of 2017, applies in both the EU and the European Economic Area, a free-trade zone that includes non-EU members Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein.

For today’s top stories on the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, click here.

“If the U.K. leaves and is outside the EU and the EEA, the regulation will not be automatically applicable in the U.K.,” Fountoukakos said. “Operators in the U.K. will not be bound by it and U.K. customers will not be able to benefit from it.”

Before the EU decided to ban roaming, phone companies had argued the plan would deprive them of profitable business in a market overcrowded with dozens of carriers, intense price wars and weak economies in several European countries. With the ban, consumers will be able to travel within the EU and pay the same for calls and data as they would in their home countries.

While BT doesn’t plan immediate changes, “the outcome of negotiations between the U.K. and the EU may affect costs in the long-term,” the London-based carrier said Monday in an e-mailed statement. “Additionally there may be impact from economic and market conditions.”

Vodafone said it’s too early to comment on the specific implications of Brexit on roaming charges. Telefonica SA’s O2 didn’t respond to requests for comment and CK Hutchison Holding’s Three declined to comment.

Operator’s Discretion

Roaming rates depend on a range of agreements between countries and operators, and carriers could also decide to extend the current rules into a post-Brexit world, Fountoukakos said.

Switzerland isn’t part of the EU or the EEA, but its largest phone company, Swisscom AG, has lowered roaming rates. The company did so by reaching individual deals with other operators, and without Swiss regulatory intervention, according to a spokeswoman, Sabrina Hubacher.

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