Let roaming fees hang around for a while longer, EU countries say

The Council of the European Union – the part of the EU legislature that represents member states – has formally laid out its stance on changing incoming legislation around roaming and net neutrality. This means negotiations with the European Parliament can formally commence, and as some parliamentarians warned on Tuesday, this will be a feisty fight.

The Council’s position opposes the Commission and Parliament’s original intention of eliminating roaming surcharges for those travelling within the EU by the end of this year. Instead, from mid-2016 people would get to use a daily 5MB “basic roaming allowance” when crossing borders that would be the same as domestic mobile data costs. Above that, operators will be able to charge extra for roaming, but not more than the wholesale costs levied by the carrier whose network is being roamed onto.

It would only be in mid-2018 that member states would ask the Commission to “assess … what further measures may be needed with a view to phasing out roaming charges” and then maybe propose new laws. In other words, the Council wants the abolition of roaming fees to be put on ice, despite the widespread push for a European digital single market.

As for net neutrality, “agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.” Again, this does not gel with the strict rules passed by the European Parliament last year, but EU digital chief Andrus Ansip, who is more bullish on the issue of the single digital market, has indicated that he is more sympathetic to this particular compromise.

According to sources in the European Parliament, many countries backed the watering-down of the roaming changes, with only Cyprus and the Italians saying the proposals didn’t go far enough. The strongest opponents of a tough net neutrality text were apparently the Germans and the British. It is probably worth nothing that two of Europe’s most powerful telcos, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, are German and British respectively.

Interestingly, the mobile industry body GSMA said in a statement that the reduced scope of the telecoms reform proposals, under the Council’s amendments, represented “a missed opportunity”. However, GSMA head Anne Bouverot said that “the immediate priority is for these proposals to reach a positive conclusion so that we can start the process of creating a truly Digital Single Market that will benefit Europe’s citizens and businesses.” The organization is against “overly prescriptive” neutrality rules, but a bit less openly agitated about the roaming elements.

The European consumer organization BEUC blamed telcos for lobbying against more meaningful roaming changes, arguing that a focus on wholesale prices could hinder competition (after all, Europe’s big telcos span many countries and will be both the buyer and supplier).

BEUC legal chief Guillermo Beltrà said:

It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges. The end of roaming has been in the making for a very long time, and this is something that telecoms have known and should be ready for. In fact, they are also to benefit from the new consumer demand that will emerge once roaming is abolished.

If the Parliament is to successfully push back against the watering-down of the roaming proposals, a majority of parliamentarians will need to join the fight.

So far, the second- and fourth-largest blocs in the European Parliament (the Socialists and Democrats and the Liberals and Democrats respectively) have both indicated that they will fight the Council hard.

The largest bloc, the center-right European People’s Party, has also previously taken much credit for shepherding through the reforms, and the single-market-motivated Commission will no doubt be right behind them. The net neutrality situation looks a bit less clear-cut.

Whatever happens, this should be entertaining to watch.

This article was updated at 5.15am PT to include the GSMA statement, and again at 6.10am PT to include information from my parliamentary sources. It was also updated on 5 March to include BEUC’s statement.

Alarms sound over changes to EU roaming, net neutrality and privacy rules

The European Parliament’s liberal-centrist bloc has warned over changes being made by EU countries to incoming telecoms legislation, saying they will severely weaken efforts to introduce unified net neutrality rules and eliminate mobile roaming surcharges for people moving between member states.

The Council of the European Union, which represents member states, is expected to present its position on Wednesday regarding the Telecoms Single Market proposal – this follows the European Commission’s original proposal and changes made by the Parliament, and will trigger negotiations over the final text. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) said Tuesday that the Council’s position is so watered down that it would undermine campaign pledges made by Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the Parliament that came in last year.

Meanwhile, digital rights groups have released leaked documents relating to the Council’s under-development position on a separate legislative package, the new General Data Protection Regulation. The version that left Parliament would introduce very tough new rules for companies and governments handling EU citizens’ personal data, but it appears member states have been agitating for these rules to be weakened.

Roaming rumble

The member states’ keenness to water down the net neutrality proposals is already well documented, with the countries apparently aiming for aspirational principles rather than tough new rules. However, the roaming aspect of the telecoms package is also contentious.

The Commission’s original proposal would have eliminated intra-EU roaming fees, allowing people to move around EU countries without having to pay more for mobile access than they would pay at home. This is integral to the European single market project – cross-border services won’t get anywhere if you can’t freely use them across borders.

However, the Council appears set to allow carriers to charge roaming surcharges for anything above a measly 5MB of data per day. The surcharges would be capped at the maximum wholesale rates charged between carriers, but they would still stymie the original intention of the legislation.

According to ALDE president Guy Verhofstadt:

This is a scandal. An end to roaming charges and the delivery of a genuine single market for telecoms was a campaign priority for all parties, many of whom are today responsible for blocking this measure…

To say this text lacks ambition is an understatement. Certainly our group will not accept this text, as the only winner from it is national telecoms operators themselves. Member States should hang their heads in shame.

Privacy shambles

As for the new data protection package, which is also intended to unify the disparate rules of the 28 EU member states, the rights groups EDRi, Access, Privacy International and the Panoptykon Foundation have warned that the package is “becoming an empty shell”.

On Tuesday the groups issued an analysis (PDF) of leaked documents about the Council’s position on the regulation. Here are the main points to worry about, according to EDRi et al:

  • Consent: The proposals would allow the failure of browser users to opt out of being tracked to be read as a form of consent for tracking and profiling. They would also weaken the limitations on what that consent can allow. “Germany undermines transparency still further by proposing that consent should cover unknown future uses of the data for ‘scientific’ purposes,” the analysis read.
  • Data subject rights: Gone is the article that would mandate “concise, transparent, clear and easily accessible policies” about data use. Governments would also be allowed to cite “national security, defence, public security and ‘other important objectives of general public interest'” as legitimate reasons for profiling people.
  • Fines and remedies: The new rules were supposed to introduce fines of up to five percent of annual turnover for serious data protection infringements, as a deterrent to the likes of [company]Google[/company], who shrug off today’s fines. The new proposals would lower that amount. The possibility of class action lawsuits would also be nixed, and individuals suing over data protection will only be able to take it to local regulators, not courts.
  • Data breach notifications: Companies would only have to tell people that their data has been stolen if the theft is “high risk”.
  • Cross-border complaints: There’s supposed to be an EU “one stop shop” for data protection complaints, which makes sense as the whole point of this regulation is to create a unified EU framework. But no, the Council would want multiple national data protection regulators to be brought in first to try reach consensus, because member states don’t want to cede control.

The deadline on this one is a bit further out, with the Council expected to produce its position on the data protection regulation in the summer, before commencing negotiations with the other legislative branches of the EU.

According to EDRi: “Unless something is done urgently, the Council will simply complete its agreement, at which stage only an absolute majority of the European Parliament would be the only way of saving Europe’s data protection reform.”

I have asked the Latvian presidency of the Council (it’s a rotating presidency) for comment on the leaks, but haven’t received a reply at the time of writing.

AT&T begins building a unified US-Mexico footprint with Cricket

AT&T promised it would create the first pan-North American service area when it bought Mexico’s Iusacell last month, and it’s wasting no time getting started on the multinational footprint. On Tuesday, Ma Bell announced its prepaid arm Cricket Wireless will make unlimited calls to Mexico part of its standard $50 and $60 plans.

Cricket is already a brand used by many foreign nationals — it offers unlimited texting to 35 countries on those same plans – so it makes sense [company]AT&T[/company] would start its cross-border feature expansion with its prepaid service. Today customers can buy a $5 add-on that will give you free calls to international landlines or $15 add-on that will give you 1000 minutes to mobile numbers. But when the new rates kick in on Wednesday, customers on any Cricket plan with 5 GBs of data or more will no longer have to pay extra for calls to any Mexico wireline or wireless phone.

Of course, this isn’t the same thing as created a unified mobile footprint where customers can wander back and forth between countries under a single rate plan –it’s only good for calls you make from the U.S. If you want to take your phone to Mexico without getting hit with big roaming charges, then you have to sign up for a $10 add-on and that only gives you a measly 100 minutes and 100 texts to use within Mexico each month.

I suspect we’ll see those policies change as AT&T completes its network integration work, which will include not just Iusacell but also Nextel Mexico – assuming its acquisition of that carrier is approved. I really doubt AT&T is just going to include Mexico and the U.S. in one giant “home” network where all voice, text and data remains part of your regular service plan, but it could definitely lower the mobile barriers that sit astride those geographic borders.

My bet is that Ma Bell will soon make calls from the U.S. to Mexico a standard part of its main AT&T Mobility plans – or at least an extremely cheap add on to its postpaid plans – and will do the same for Mexico-to-U.S. calls for Iusacell and Nextel customers. Then I suspect it will drastically lower the roaming rates it charges customers from either the U.S. or Mexico when they venture north or south of their respective borders.

As for a true multinational plan – say, a 5 GB monthly data bucket with unlimited voice and text that can be used in either country – AT&T may one day offer it, but likely at a premium price to customers who travel frequently between Mexico and the U.S.

WhatSim sells a WhatsApp-only mobile plan on the cheap

WhatsApp is now capturing a good deal of the world’s texting traffic, so an Italian company figured it was time to create a WhatsApp data plan for the world. The people behind Italy’s Zeromobile have launched a new venture called WhatSim that sells a €10 ($11.60) SIM card that lets you chat on WhatsApp for free in 150 countries for a year.

When it comes to text messaging alternatives, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is already a bargain. It’s a free download, and after the first year you pay only 99 cents a year. That, however, does not include the cost of mobile data, which can be exceptional high if you’re trotting the world outside of your home network. So WhatSim has created plan that levels the playing field across the globe. You buy the SIM card for €10 and aren’t charged any data fees as long as you use WhatsApp’s basic text messaging features. After a year, you can continue the service for another €10.

If you want to use more advanced features like sending pictures or video, recording voice messages or sharing your location or contacts, then you have to pay more. You buy “recharges” that give you different allotments of pictures or videos — the charges vary based on what country you’re in — based on a credit system.

It’s an interesting concept because it essentially allows anyone to maintain a lifeline communications service anywhere in the world for very little investment (WhatsApp itself is trying to tackle the same issue by providing a web client for Android users). When you travel outside of your home country, you merely replace your carrier’s regular SIM card in your GSM phone with the WhatSim. I still have plenty of questions for WhatSim like whether it will be sold in the U.S. and what happens when you try to access another app besides WhatsApp. I’ll provide updates once the company gets back to me.



AT&T goes pan American, closing its $2.5B Iusacell deal

AT&T is now officially the first North American mobile carrier to run networks on both sides of Rio Grande. On Friday, Ma Bell announced it has finalized its $2.5 billion acquisition of Mexico’s Iusacell from Gurpo Salinas.

The deal doesn’t bring that many new subscribers to its network – Iusacell’s 9.2 million subscribers puts it in a distant third place to Mexican wireless giant América Móvil — but it gains access to a GSM and CDMA network covering 120 million people. AT&T is promising to create a unified network covering 400 million people in North America, though I doubt that will mean the in-network coverage on a standard AT&T plan will suddenly extend to Mexico City and Oaxaca.

Chances are AT&T will start marketing specific plans for frequent cross-border travelers in both countries as well as sell calling features that make it cheap or free to call Mexican landlines and mobile numbers from the U.S. and vice versa. América Móvil does much the same thing through its U.S. mobile virtual network operator TracFone. For instance, one of TracFone’s brands Telcel América is named after Móvil’s primary brand Telcel in Mexico, an it offers a $60 plan that includes 1,000 calling minutes to mobile numbers in Mexico and unrestricted calling to landlines in Mexico along with unlimited talk and text inside of U.S. borders.

AT&T appointed a 19-year Ma Bell vet Thaddeus Arroyo as CEO of Iusacell, and he will be assisted former CEO Adrian Stickel in the transition. I suspect they’ll have a big integration task ahead of them. It takes a lot more than just duct tape and superglue to fully combine two national networks, though the fact those networks are in completely different geographies helps. Iusacell is also in the process of transition from CDMA technology to GSM, which will make roaming between the two countries a lot easier.

AT&T has also committed to bring LTE services to Mexico, which Ma Bell helps will be key to growing Iusacell’s customer base. Mexico has a rapidly growing middle class, but its smartphone penetration is roughly half that of the U.S. LTE and smartphones go hand and hand, so 4G represents a big opportunity for the combined carrier, AT&T said in a statement.

UK carriers agree to boost coverage, avoiding national roaming

The British government has gotten the country’s four big mobile operators to agree to boost their coverage, to tackle so-called not-spots in rural areas.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone said Thursday that they would jointly invest £5 billion ($7.8 billion) in the program over the next couple of years. This will result in guaranteed voice and SMS coverage over 90 percent of the U.K. geographic area, with services from all four operators going up from 69 percent to 85 percent of the land.

According to the most recent statistics from telecoms regulator Ofcom, 99.7 percent of premises can now get outdoor 2G mobile coverage from at least one carrier, and 99.5 percent can get 3G coverage. However, geographical coverage is another story – more like 80 percent – and today’s agreement is intended to provide connectivity to those in remote areas.

The government said in a statement that the deal, which involves amendments to the operators’ licence conditions, would halve the areas “currently blighted by patchy coverage as a result of partial ‘not-spots.'”

“I am pleased to have secured a legally binding deal with the four mobile networks,” Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said in the statement. “Too many parts of the UK regularly suffer from poor mobile coverage leaving them unable to make calls or send texts.”

Javid had previously threatened to create a “national roaming” framework, through which the carriers would have been forced to let their customers lock onto whichever network was providing a signal in a given location, if their own wasn’t available.

The idea saw tremendous pushback not only from the operators, who argued it would “limit incentives for investment in future mobile network infrastructure,” but also from the Home Office, which said it would make it more difficult for authorities to spy on people.

“A partnership between government and the mobile operators is required to maximise coverage across the UK, so this agreement is a good outcome for our customers,” O2 COO Derek McManus said in the statement. “It will support investment in our network, while ensuring that strong competition remains between the different networks.”

Time Warner Cable, Boingo turn on Hotspot 2.0

Time Warner Cable and wireless ISP Boingo signed a roaming deal in June, which allows TWC’s broadband customers to use Boingo’s Wi-Fi hotspots at airports and convention centers and Boingo subscribers to tap TWC’s growing network of outdoor hotspots in its cable territory. These kinds of deals are pretty standard fare among Wi-Fi operators, but in this case there was one big difference.

The two agreed to use a new Wi-Fi networking standard called Hotspot 2.0 to link their networks, and on Wednesday they announced that feature is finally enabled. What that means for [company]Time Warner Cable[/company] and [company]Boingo[/company] customers is that their smartphones can move securely between and automatically connect to those two networks without requiring any kind of manual registration or login.

That may not seem huge, but simple deals like these mark the beginning of a new era in public Wi-Fi in which every operator could negotiate dozens, if not hundreds, of Wi-Fi roaming deals and offer their customers expansive hotspot footprints. Today we live in a world of segregated networks, granting access to those armed with the proper passwords or the willingness to go through a registration screen. That isn’t exactly conducive to creating a seamless wireless network experience.

But with Hotspot 2.0, all of those credentials are handled in the network. Newer smartphones with Wi-Fi Alliance-certified Passpoint clients can automatically link to any network they’re authorized to use. Right now the industry is slowly adopting Hotspot 2.0, signing one-off deals such as Boingo and TWC’s and the recent cross-city limits agreement between San Jose and San Francisco. Hopefully we’ll see these partnerships expand beyond just two parties, creating truly global hotspot networks

EU digital chief tries to maintain single digital market momentum

European member states may be keen to water down current net neutrality proposals and push back against the centralization of radio spectrum policy in the EU, but new digital single market chief Andrus Ansip isn’t having any of it. In a speech on Monday, he adopted a tough stance on these issues, and on the abolition of roaming fees for those travelling within the EU. Ansip also told the member states to hurry up so the proposals can be become reality.

Ansip told telecoms providers at the GSMA Mobile 360 conference in Brussels that the concept of net neutrality “has to be solid and clearly defined.” Member states are more keen on unenforceable principles that can be interpreted differently in different countries, but Ansip noted that “if 28 countries have 28 different approaches, it makes the market even more fragmented.”

On spectrum, member states are trying to stop the Commission gathering any more powers of coordination. Ansip argued: “The more this natural resource is divided, the less efficient it is. Ideally, EU countries should be working together much more on allocating spectrum. After all, radio waves know no borders. Why should the internet? We don’t need national fragmentation of internet traffic.”

Ansip said roaming fees for travel between EU countries were “an irritant and an anomaly”. He said he “will continue to push for an end to roaming surcharges in Europe” because “they have no place in the telecoms and digital single markets that Europe so badly needs.” Member states want to see “fair use” policies inserted into current legislative proposals for allowing people to use roaming data within their domestic tariffs.

The Council of the EU, representing the member states’ governments, represents the last hurdle in the European legislative process. The debate over the Telecoms Package, proposed by Ansip’s predecessor, Neelie Kroes, is now heading into the new year. Ansip said he hoped an agreement could be reached within months. “Otherwise, I fear that we may lose momentum,” he said.

So far, the Council hasn’t even begun negotiations with the European Parliament over the package, as it must. Ansip pointed out that the Council itself had pushed for a single EU telecoms market, and suggested that the telcos should also be keen to see this creation because would aid cross-border consolidation and allow them to offer services across the EU.

“It is up to those in the market to invest in the necessary infrastructure. However, the market cannot always provide all that is needed. That’s where public authorities have a role to play,” he said. “Firstly, by providing the right and adequate regulatory environment, which we plan to achieve through the Digital Single Market strategy. And secondly, by incentivizing and leveraging more private investment.”

A single telecoms market is of course a necessary base for a single digital market. Beyond what Kroes had already proposed regarding telecoms, Ansip called for simplified rules on online purchases, an end to the geo-blocking of digital services, and the reform of Europe’s copyright rules.

WorldSIM’s new gadget combines Wi-Fi and storage with power bank

The British firm WorldSIM is both a global-minded virtual mobile network operator, with SIM cards that help people use their mobile devices relatively cheaply while travelling, and a provider of travel accessories. These gadgets have included fairly nondescript pocket Wi-Fi routers and dual-SIM handsets, but the latest one is quite interesting.

The WorldSIM Tri-Fi incorporates: A portable Wi-Fi hotspot with a SIM slot, coming with both one of the company’s SIM cards and an Ethernet port for hotels that provide wired connectivity; a 5200mAh power bank for charging mobile devices; and the ability to take microSD cards of up to 32GB in capacity.

WorldSIM Tri-Fi

WorldSIM Tri-Fi

The Tri-Fi’s hotspot functionality can serve up to 10 devices, and the SIM card enables data roaming in 168 countries.

[company]WorldSIM[/company]’s prices start at 8p ($0.13) per megabyte, though of course this depends on which local carrier the firm is using at the time – it’s cheapest in Europe and North America, but you’d be paying as much as $15 per megabyte in many parts of the world. One rival that might be worth checking out is a Hong Kong firm called Glocalme, which has a similar device and often cheaper rates, but covers less than half as many countries.

The Tri-Fi is now up for pre-order at the price of $120, with deliveries promised before Christmas. The regular price will be $180.