In 2015, the European Commission announced that by June 2017 mobile roaming charges would be abolished throughout the 28 nation European Union. The fall of roaming rates appears to be an international trend even in the GCC. In May, the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) announced that roaming charges for voice calls and SMS will be further reduced from April 1 next year in a move to continuously reduce roaming charges across the region.
Telecom regulators across the GCC have been uniting to slash roaming charges in a similar fashion to the EU. Charges for mobile data services will be reduced in April every year until 2020 in the GCC, according to CRA. The organization has been working in coordination with other GCC countries for "implementation of a second phase of regulation for the benefit of telecom consumers throughout the region."
The reduced roaming rates will be for the main services consumers need while traveling abroad such as receiving voice calls, sending text messages and using mobile data while traveling throughout the GCC. Receiving SMS while in roaming will remain free, the organization said. In 2017, Qatar has seen mobile data charges reduced by around 35 percent.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in the UAE also recently announced the implementation of price caps for intra-GCC roaming services by UAE-based mobile operators Etisalat and du, resulting from the implementation of TRA Directive No. 04 of 2015 regarding mobile roaming charges issued in September 2015. As a result, on average, roaming charges for UAE customers traveling throughout the GCC has fallen by 18 percent since April 1.
"The TRA was actively represented in the GCC's Working Group meetings to study the regulation of roaming prices," commented Hamad Obaid Al Mansoori, director general of the TRA. "The implementation of price caps by all mobile operators in the GCC represents a great achievement for GCC countries regionally and internationally."
Al Mansoori added: "The TRA strives to achieve the satisfaction and happiness of all customers, and the body is making all efforts to raise the quality of services provided by the sector to better serve UAE customers and ensure that they have access to quality services at competitive prices. We are looking forward to the positive impact that the implementation of this directive will have on UAE customers traveling to the GCC."
Etisalat announced on April 1 that it had reduced its roaming rates for voice calls, SMS and data within the GCC. In a statement, the company said that its prepaid and postpaid customers will from now on enjoy cheaper roaming rates of up to 35 percent on data, outgoing voice calls to the UAE, GCC and local destinations and outgoing SMS while traveling to any GCC country, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia and roaming through any telecom partner.
To reap the benefits of more savings, Etisalat said its customers can choose to subscribe to any of its voice, data and combo roaming packages which offer unlimited data usage in 100 countries for AED35 per day.
In 2016, the TRA instructed Etisalat and du to cut GCC roaming charges by an average of 42 percent. The new price caps were in line with the intra-GCC agreement to reduce roaming tariffs by 40 percent, the TRA said. The new unified rates were aimed at helping mobile phone users save up to $1.13 billion.
According to officials, this could boost social welfare by $404 million. The move was also aimed at helping people travel without the need to purchase a new SIM from each destination within the GCC.
Even in India, roaming charges are becoming seen as impractical due to the increasing competition in the telecom industry. Earlier this year, Airtel, the country's largest telecom operator, announced the ‘death of national roaming' as it unveiled plans to get rid of roaming charges within the country by April 1.
The company also highlighted that there will be no bill shocks while roaming overseas as daily billing will be automatically adjusted to the price of a basic one-day pack even for customers who don't purchase a roaming pack.
"This marks the death of national roaming and the whole country will now be like a local network for our customers who will not have to think twice before making or receiving calls or using data while travelling outside their home base," said Gopal Vittal, MD & CEO (India & South Asia) for Bharti Airtel.
Indian state-owned telecom operator BSNL was the first company to abolish roaming charges on its network when, in mid- 2015, it decided to discontinue any extra charges for calls made outside a subscriber's home circle. And with competitor operator Reliance Jio also adopting zero charges for roaming from September last year, the days of roaming appeared to be fading away.
The EU's long-awaited end of roaming charges will be effective as of June 15. The change will take effect across the 28 nation bloc. And nations that are part of the European Economic Area, such as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, will also benefit shortly afterwards. Some mobile operators, like France's Orange, have already been offering no roaming charges since the middle of May.
The UK's Telefónica-owned O2 recently scrapped roaming charges for its customers. It axed the extra costs for customers traveling across 47 countries from Europe to Guadeloupe and Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean. Rival UK operators, Three, recently announced that its customers will be able to use their phones abroad at no extra cost in a further two worldwide destinations, Singapore and Brazil, from June 15, bringing its total destinations to 60.
As Three continues its assault on unfair roaming charges, specifically in destinations outside the EU, these new destinations keep the operator positioned as a leader in mobile roaming. Other networks are playing catch-up according to Three, as EU regulations force them into freeing travelers from unfair roaming charges in Europe.
Roaming charges are a rip off, says Three, as it continues to tackle the issue head on by opening up further global destinations to phone users at no extra cost and now covers 82% of total trips abroad worldwide.
Three was the first network to scrap roaming charges back in 2013, it claims, allowing customers to use their allowances at no extra cost. Over time, it has continued to add more destinations to the list, not just across Europe, but also popular rest-of-world places, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.
As of June 15, Member States of the European Union will also be able to apply to alter their roaming charges, after the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) published guidelines for the retail charging of roaming services in the EU.
Telecom operators will be able to apply to their national regulator for special permission to change their charging model or add a small charge for roaming services to cover additional costs.
However, the BEREC indicated that these requests would only be approved in specific and exceptional circumstances to ensure the sustainability of a company's domestic business model. The BEREC said it would require detailed evidence of the need to make any changes to current charges.
"Roaming regulations stipulate that roaming providers, upon authorization by the national regulatory authorities, should be able to apply a surcharge to the regulated retail roaming services only to the extent necessary to recover all relevant costs of providing such services," the rules state.
The issue of roaming charges on domestic tariffs was brought up earlier in March after reports that Irish operator, Three Ireland, it would introduce its own specific roaming allowance on some of its unlimited data plans.
The reason for the change, according to the operator, was to pay for costs charged to it by European operators.
The reports stirred the European Commission to issue a statement warning operators not to attempt circumventing regulations by changing tariffs to separate domestic roaming allowances or by offering extra national market data services as a reward or benefit on the side.