Calling time on Border roaming charges

Irish mobile users are racking up huge bills without realising it


Imagine using your mobile phone, laptop or tablet computer and then being hammered for international roaming charges without leaving your home. That's what happens daily for thousands of users in Border counties.

Automatic network search programmes can switch devices to the strongest available signal and leave the user liable for substantial bills, often without knowing it.

This year Irish mobile users, in common with others right across Europe, worked up an estimated €5 billion bill for roaming. For those in Border areas, the individual share of that bill is on average nearly €350 per year.

Expensive charges for calls, texts and internet usage while on holiday or business is one thing. But for Border county residents incurring extra costs without crossing the doorstep is quite another. They want action. As a result Sinn Féin and SDLP Assembly members are linking with the Oireachtas to find a common approach in taking on the providers.

Some users meanwhile have taken matters in hand and its far from uncommon to find a user in south Armagh, Derry or south Down to have two phones – a “northern” one and a “southern” one, frequently linked to the same operator. It's a similar story in parts of north Louth, Monaghan and Donegal.

The European Union has stepped in on two occasions since 2007, most recently last summer, to cap charges and to phase out what it has called the “roaming rip-off” for customers not only in both parts of Ireland but across the union, especially those near to fringe areas where providers overlap.

Last May, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported a plan to squeeze roaming charges, and therefore the gap between domestic and other rates, to next to nothing by 2015. If the operators don’t comply, then the EU will most likely force them.

The scale of mobile usage, especially with the advent of smartphones which can access the internet, continues to rise. So too are the earnings of the telecoms giants which have been branded by an EU commissioner as “outrageous profits”.

The UK consumer organisation Which? concurs, claiming that operators were making profits of up to 200 per cent on calls made and a staggering 300-400 per cent on calls received while roaming on other EU networks.

EU commissioner for the digital agenda Neelie Kroes has applauded the latest round of EU capping, known as the Eurotariff, claiming: “It would . . . immediately bring down prices for data roaming, where operators currently enjoy outrageous profit margins.”

She says the move, which came into force in July, will facilitate customers in buying roaming services from suppliers other than their domestic network provider. “Overall, the improved EU roaming regulation – taking into account calls, SMS [texts] and data – will deliver consumer savings of 75 per cent across a range of mobile roaming services, compared to 2007 prices,” the commission believes.

But while the move is certainly welcomed by state regulators and customers alike, public representatives in Ireland are pushing for other initiatives. The Eurotariff may be welcome as far as it goes, but fails to deal with the core problem of incurring charges without actually going anywhere.

Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, claims “inadvertent roaming” continues to cause significant problems. “In the worst affected area [south Armagh and south Down] almost a third [30 per cent] of people say they experience inadvertent roaming on a daily basis. Ofcom estimated that this can cost consumers up to an estimated £300 [€346] in additional charges per year.” The scale of the problem is huge with “tens of thousands” of users affected, it estimates.

ComReg, the Irish regulator adds its own warning. “If a consumer has a smartphone, they should be aware that applications [apps] may use data even when the consumer is not interacting with the application.”

It’s now that easy to run up additional costs.

The answer, say some public representatives, is an all-Ireland tariff. Vodafone has such a tariff – but at an additional £10 monthly fee on top of the usual charges.

“It is unacceptable that companies such as O2, Vodafone and 3, which operate across the island of Ireland, continue to impose unacceptable roaming charges on unsuspecting consumers. These excess premiums imposed by the same parent company is pure and simple profiteering as there is no additional operating cost incurred by the companies.”

Assembly and Oireachtas committees working together will exert greater pressure on the operators.

Derry SDLP Assembly member Mark H Durkan says: “It is time for mobile phone companies to introduce a single all-island tariff, especially providers such as O2 who operate both North and South and incur no additional cost when customers’ signal switches over the Border.” Party colleague Karen McKevitt in South Down agrees. “It will also right a great injustice to Border users,” she says.