BRUSSELS The European Commission proposed on Wednesday scrapping time limits on charge-free mobile phone roaming included in next year's plan to abolish such tariffs after critics said its initial proposal was consumer unfriendly.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker abruptly ordered the previous proposal to be redrafted two weeks ago to make good on a pledge to end roaming charges. The EU executive is seeking to shore up public support after Britain's vote to leave the bloc and the rise of anti-establishment parties.
Europeans, millions of whom frequently cross often nearby borders, have been irritated by charges for making calls or using data abroad that seem far greater than any additional costs required to provide that service.
The Commission's initial proposal on the "fair use" of roaming was to allow consumers to roam for up to 90 days per year and for a maximum of 30 consecutive days, while paying only their domestic prices.
Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the digital single market, told a news conference that there would no longer be a formal limit on surcharge-free roaming when new rules enter force in June 2017.
"We will not put any limit in terms of days... but we decided to put clear safeguards in terms of residency," he said.
Operators like Vodafone (VOD.L) and Deutsche Telekom (DTEGn.DE) will be able to check consumers' usage patterns to ensure they do not abuse the system by buying a cheap SIM card in one EU country and using it permanently elsewhere.
"We want to protect both sides," Ansip said.
The burden of proof will fall on companies, who will have to demonstrate that a customer is abusing free roaming by comparing their usage abroad to that at home without falling foul of data protection rules limiting the tracking of online habits.
"It is an interesting pro-consumer measure against the backdrop of rising anti-EU sentiment in many member states," said Rob Bratby, telecoms partner at law firm Olswang.
"However, it feels a little like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic if it is supposed to reconnect EU citizens with Europe."
For example, if a person uses their phone a lot more abroad than at home, or if a SIM card is largely inactive at home, operators will be able to apply roaming surcharges.
Similarly, if a customer uses multiple SIM cards when travelling then operators would be able to charge for roaming. Operators, though, would have to inform users they were facing surcharges and consumers would be allowed to challenge them.
The level of those surcharges is being debated by the European Parliament and member states, with a final agreement expected early next year.
Such surcharges would not apply to travellers using SIM cards from countries in which they reside or with which they have a "stable link", which could include work commuters, expats frequently in their home country or exchange students.
The Commission said it would adopt its new proposal by Dec. 15 after feedback from member states and national regulators.
Telecom and mobile operators' associations ETNO and GSMA, representing companies such as EE (BT.L), Telefonica (TEF.MC) and Telia (TELIA.ST), said they would provide feedback.
For a decade, battles over roaming charges have served as a barometer of EU politics.
The Commission, in its role as enforcer of a single market, has long cited its campaign to cap roaming charges, forcing them down by some 90 percent since 2007, in efforts to show voters it works for them.
But a rearguard action by phone companies, defending profits and citing big discrepancies in prices from Bulgaria to wealthy Luxembourg, had left consumer groups disappointed.
Roaming charges account for a fraction of companies' revenues, typically between 3 and 6 percent.
The proposal, seen by Reuters, does give operators the possibility to ask regulators for permission to apply roaming surcharges if they stand to lose at least 5 percent of their mobile revenues when providing "roam like at home".
(Additional reporting By Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Alexander Smith)