MOBILE telecoms giant EE’s announcement last week that it would be reintroducing roaming charges for UK customers using their phones in European Union countries is a landmark moment for citizens of post-Brexit Britain.

If you had to pick out one thing that had made travelling in Europe much easier in recent years, ahead of the coronavirus pandemic obviously, it might well have been the EU’s eradication from 2017 of roaming charges for citizens of member states when using mobile phones within the bloc. This removal of roaming charges, part of the digital single market policy, was a huge step forward for consumers.

Mobile phone groups have fair-usage limits, and customers obviously still had to be aware of their allowances following the 2017 move, as they had to be in the UK. However, generally the outlawing of roaming charges was something which made using mobile phones throughout the EU pretty much stress-free, whether to stay in touch with relatives and friends, or when using map applications (apps) to navigate a major city or journey, or, within data limits, streaming.

This was something of a joy. After years of having to check small print or changes to policies, and trying to work out just how much it was going to cost to use your phone abroad, it was good to know the EU had your back. This valuable protection, which dispelled previous worries among consumers of an unexpected bill amid various horror stories on this front over the years, still applies across EU member states and other European Economic Area countries Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, but, since the end of last year, no longer to the UK.

The UK Government stated the new reality matter-of-factly, as it has done with various negative impacts of its hard Brexit.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport stated on December 31 last year: “The UK has now left the EU. This means that surcharge-free roaming when you travel to EU and EEA countries is no longer guaranteed. This includes employees of UK companies travelling in the EU for business.

“A number of mobile operators have stated that they have no current plans to change their mobile roaming policies, however this could change in future. You should check your mobile operator’s roaming policies before travelling abroad.”

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Roaming charges were always an obvious thing to watch in the wake of Brexit. How would phone companies react to being able to impose roaming charges if they wished?

The initial response was not surprising – big players emphasised they had no current plans to reintroduce roaming charges.

Of course, relatively few people will have benefited from this albeit welcome stance by the mobile phone companies in the immediate wake of the UK’s exit from the single market on December 31, given the lack of international travel (and EE, part of telecoms giant BT, has now already signalled a different path).

In a similar way, new border friction for UK citizens entering and leaving EU countries will only be seen properly once travel opens back up again. Busy airports seem like a distant memory but hopefully, once we get further through this grim pandemic, they will return. And UK citizens will likely face longer queues at passport control, as well as having to be aware of different customs rules and procedures.

The big questions on mobile phone roaming charges will, and were always going to be, answered fully over the longer term.

We are obviously still not far on from the Boris Johnson administration’s hard Brexit on December 31. However, plenty of chaos has been seen so far, not least for hard-pressed UK exporters trying to sell to the EU, troubles which have been exacerbated by the UK Government’s refusal to accept regulatory alignment.

And it has not taken long at all for EE to move to reintroduce mobile phone roaming charges. It will take many customers a while to experience these, after they come into effect from January next year, given the huge impact on international travel from the pandemic. UK travellers currently have to navigate frequently changing green, amber and red lists of destinations, and face onerous and expensive testing requirements.

However, the crucial point on mobile phone roaming charges over the short, medium and long term remains that the EU no longer has the backs of UK citizens, as a result of the particular form of Brexit chosen by the Johnson Government.

The situation is spelled out by the UK telecoms regulator on its website.

Ofcom says: “Since 31 December 2020, the EU rules on roaming charges no longer apply in the UK. This means that, like other destinations, the amount your mobile provider can charge you for using your mobile phone in EU countries, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein is no longer capped.

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“Each of the UK mobile operators have different approaches to roaming charges and fair use policies. It is important to check with your provider to see what their approach is before you use your mobile abroad. Some consumer protection measures (e.g. welcome messages, data roaming limits etc.) remain in place and apply regardless of the country you use your mobile phone in.”

This statement highlights the fact that we have moved from a largely worry-free situation back to one of hassle of checking what the position is, not just now but crucially as the situation evolves. It also spells a return to keeping a close eye on usage.

Ofcom adds: “Under Ofcom rules providers must publish details of their standard tariffs, including standard roaming charges, on their website. However, if you are having difficulty finding them or you are concerned by the costs, speak to your provider before you travel to understand the charges for the country you are visiting and any packages or discounted rates it may offer.”

So hands up who likes trawling around the internet trying to find out a telecoms company’s charges? And speaking to your provider, while obviously increasingly important as things change, is just another time-consuming task, at a point when the workloads of many have been ramped up still further by the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

There are some safeguards, as Ofcom points out, but these are contingent on people not opting into things.

Ofcom notes: “Unless you have opted into a different limit, providers are required to apply a £45 a month (excluding VAT) cut-off limit on data regardless of where you travel in the world.

“Your provider must send you an alert to your mobile device when you reach 80% and then 100% of the agreed data roaming limit. Operators must stop charging for data at the 100% point unless you agree to continue to use data.”

This statement serves to further highlight the lost benefit of not having had to think about roaming charges in EEA countries following the EU’s 2017 move, and only having had to bother about allowances and fair-usage limits.

EE highlights on its website that its “daily roaming charge doesn’t start until January 2022” so “you can enjoy your allowances at no extra cost” if “heading away this year”.

The roaming charges will apply to customers taking out a pay-monthly handset or SIM-only plan from July 7 onwards.

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EE is introducing a new flat fee of £2 a day for customers to use their data, minutes and texts allowances while travelling to EEA countries, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland.

While disappointing, the move by EE was hardly surprising given Brexit has provided an opportunity for mobile phone companies to bring back roaming charges.

Like so many other backward steps since Brexit, there appeared to be an inevitability about re-emergence of roaming charges.

James O’Brien, author of How Not To Be Wrong: The Art Of Changing Your Mind and presenter on radio station LBC, seemed to sum this up well with a simple “oh” accompanying his tweet of news of the EE move. Mr O’Brien, an astute observer of the Brexit reality, has greeted news of food shortages with the same “oh”.

Explaining its move to customers, EE poses the question: “Do I have any other options apart from paying a daily roaming charge?”

It answers its own question as follows: “Using the minutes, texts and data in the EU/EEA is no longer included in your plan allowance. However, if you’re heading away this year, you’re in luck – the daily charge doesn’t start until January 2022.”

EE notes an option to instead pay for a “roaming pass” at the cost of £10 a month, or for customers on “smart benefits” plans to choose this as a benefit.

The key thing though, in the context of Brexit and all that has changed in terms of the rules governing the sector, is that “using the minutes, texts and data in the EU/EEA is no longer included in your plan allowance” part.

In a general sector context, Ofcom notes that “companies must give customers at least a month’s notice of any changes to their contract that would particularly disadvantage them”.

It adds: “Customers have the right to exit their contract without being penalised in these situations.”

Of course, looking at the telecoms sector and more broadly, customers can vote relatively easily with their feet in most situations, subject to their contractual situation, even if they sometimes have to bide their time.

Changing mobile phone provider is, however, time-consuming.

That said, as travel increasingly resumes, it would seem likely that mobile phone companies’ prevailing policies on having roaming charges or not, and what these might be, will be an ever-greater consideration for customers.

This will hopefully make the big mobile telecoms operators think long and hard about whether or not their new-found freedom to implement roaming charges means they actually should do so.

Hoping things would continue as they had since 2017 always looked way over-optimistic, and so it has proved with EE’s move. The big question is what happens from here, and some of that may be dictated by what customers do. The collective power of customers in this, and similar, situations should not be underestimated. But it would be good to see politicians keeping a very close eye on how things evolve, for the good of the consumer. This might be unlikely from the UK Government though, given it has seemed content to see various protections disappear with its hard Brexit.