European Court Upholds Roaming Charge Restrictions

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Four U.K. mobile network operators must obey a 2007 European Union regulation ordering them to cut charges for mobile phone calls made while roaming, the European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday.

The ruling comes as the Commission is considering further regulation of roaming charges for data traffic. The Commission's goal is to eliminate the difference in price between national calls and roaming calls by 2015.

Vodafone, Telefónica, Orange, and T-Mobile had asked the U.K.'s High Court of Justice to rule whether the European Commission had the right to order U.K. networks to cap roaming charges. The High Court referred the matter to the European Court of Justice for clarification.

When a mobile phone subscriber makes or receives calls on a network outside their home country, they are said to be roaming. Charges for such calls are typically higher than for calls made in the home country. The European Commission, concerned that high roaming charges were discouraging cross-border travel within the E.U., invited network operators across Europe to lower their roaming charges voluntarily, and when that failed, it introduced a regulation to cap the charges.

The European Court of Justice ruled that the European Commission had the right to impose a price cap, and that imposing a cap on retail prices as well as wholesale prices was allowable as a means of protecting consumers.

In this case, retail roaming prices are those paid by subscribers for the calls they make or receive, while wholesale roaming charges are those paid by their network operator to the network on which they were roaming when they made or received calls.

The court also ruled that the roaming regulation respected the E.U. principle of subsidiary: the Commission may only legislate or pass regulations at a European level when the desired effect cannot be achieved at a national level. Given that wholesale charges levied by an operator in one country have an effect on consumers from another, national-level regulation would have been insufficient, the court said.

Mobile roaming charges have now fallen to an average of €0.38 per minute across the E.U., according to Commission figures. The average for all mobile phone calls (including roaming calls) is €0.13 per minute.

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