EU looks to end roaming charges. Finally.

If I don't need to go through customs upon landing in Berlin or Brussels from Paris, why should my phone?

By , Staff writer

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    A retired couple uses a cell phone while sitting on a bench in Enghien-les-Bains, north of Paris, August 26, 2013.
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In his annual “state of the union” speech Wednesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged a recovering Europe not to become complacent, especially ahead of EU elections next spring.

But it was the backing of a proposal in Europe's telecommunications industry, dubbed "the most ambitious plan in 26 years of telecoms reform," that caught my attention - specifically the prospect of no more roaming charges in Europe.

On my first trip to Brussels as Europe Bureau Chief, I thought little – if at all – about my Paris-based phone plan. I placed calls, checked Google maps to find out where to go, and confirmed appointments via email.

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The next month I received my cell phone bill: Over 120 euros, or roughly double what I expected.

It's not that I have little experience with roaming fees. I covered over a dozen countries in Latin America for seven years, and telecommunications was always an issue when I traveled from Mexico. I generally bypassed big fees by buying a cheap local phone, or buying a chip to temporarily put into my Mexican phone.

But in Europe, where a currency is shared and borders are open, I made the logical, if mistaken, assumption that cell phone service is open too. If I don't need to go through customs upon landing in Berlin or Brussels from Paris, why should my phone?

Soon it might not.

Mr. Barroso said in Strasbourg Wednesday that he supports a plan that phases out roaming fees starting in 2014.

European authorities have already “dramatically brought down roaming costs,” he said, according to the New York Times, but the new plan would further “lower prices for consumers and present new opportunities for companies.”

The proposal is not without controversy. According to the Times, the industry has already been subject to many caps since 2007 on roaming charges, which comprise a big part of company profits.

In a sign of the battle to come, Anne Bouverot, the director general of the GSMA, a telecommunications industry group, said Wednesday in a statement that the focus of an overhaul should be “increased investment in Europe’s telecoms infrastructure” as part of a “more thorough and comprehensive approach.”

But people like myself will be happy. To avoid fees I could, like many do, turn off roaming services or the phone altogether and leave it at the hotel. But if I could do that in Latin America a decade ago, I am not sure it is a viable option in the era of smart phones.

The way we work has changed dramatically. I never buy a map anymore, which means that, without my phone, I am nearly lost. Appointments often change at the last minute, with sources operating under the assumption that everyone is plugged in. Annoying, yes. But I'd rather get the message and adjust accordingly, rather than miss a meeting altogether, especially on a one-day business trip.

In some ways, Barroso's idea to phase out roaming charges is another move towards integrating Europe.

The common market today still largely operates under 28 separates ones. The proposal would cap cross-border calls at the same cost as long-distance domestic calls, according to Reuters, and limit the price for making calls while traveling in Europe to 18 cents. There would be no charges for receiving calls.

"The European Commission says no to roaming premiums, yes to net neutrality, yes to investment, yes to new jobs," EU telecoms chief Neelie Kroes said in a statement yesterday.

All 28 countries of the EU must sign the law first. And while on the road towards integration it is less controversial than other initiatives -- such as the quest to forge a banking union for Europe -- the pesky issue of sovereignty might rear its head.

As Reuters notes: “The Commission also said it would seek feedback on the possibility of creating a single EU regulator for the industry, a sensitive issue for countries wary of losing power to the European Union's executive.”

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