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EUROPEAN UNION

Anger as EU keeps mobile roaming fees

A decision by EU governments not to end roaming mobile charges until the end of 2018 has prompted anger from consumer groups and EU politicians who had wanted the fees ditched this year.

Anger as EU keeps mobile roaming fees
Mobile phone use at airport. Photo: Shutterstock

"The Council is really disappointing 550 million EU citizens and is consciously holding back the development of the Digital Single Market," said Fredrick Federley, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is coordinator for the Liberal ALDE group on the industry committee.

"This is down to pressure from the mobile operators, who have had these charges as a milking cow for some time," he told The Local. 

Guillermo Beltrà, head of the legal and economic division at the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, was also frustrated.

“We are disappointed by the national governments’ lack of ambition to bring down once and for all one of the most important barriers to Europe’s Digital Single Market,” he said in a statement released to The Local. 

The group said governments had lacked the political will to take on telecom companies on their citizens’ behalf. 

“It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges,” said Beltrà. 

“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.”

The European Council, which represents the EU’s 28 member states, agreed this week that mobile phone users would be given a roaming allowance that allows cell phone use in other EU countries at domestic rates up to an as yet unspecified limit. Telecom companies would be allowed to levy roaming charges for any use beyond this limit, though at a lower rate than before. 

“We now expect the European Parliament to take a strong stance in the negotiations with the ministers for a final deal that will hopefully make roaming fees a thing of the past,” said Guillermo Beltrà. 

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly last year to end roaming costs by the end of this year. 

Gunnar Hökmark, a Swedish MEP, has long argued for roaming fees to be scrapped. He expects tough negotiations with national governments. 

“Some member states are defending national operators. Without naming any countries, some operators in the south are happy to get higher prices from users coming from the north,” he told The Local. 

He did however express some understanding for the delay. The creation of a pan-European network for telecom operators would ease the process of doing away with roaming fees, he said. 

As things stand, domestic carriers pay their counterparts in other countries wholesale charges for foreign mobile use by their customers. 

Abolishing roaming charges without first fixing this glitch in the system would risk resulting in higher domestic charges in many countries, which is something operators and national governments want to avoid, said Hökmark. 

“The most productive outcome of the negotiations would be the creation of a European operator network" to review the system of wholesale charges.  

Roaming fees for calls and data have dropped sharply in recent years after the European Commission took steps to eradicate the sort of “bill shocks” that often greeted travellers returning home from other EU countries.

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‘Double processing time’: Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Germany, Austria and another of other countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

'Double processing time': Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors. EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 member states to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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