Roaming, Without the Ripoff

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You can afford the flight to China, but your bank account handle the roaming fees?

The European Union has announced a big new agreement to regulate and reduce mobile phone roaming fees. It is the latest in a bunch of interventions by EU regulators into the mobile market in the last couple of years.

As any traveller knows, mobile roaming fees are ridiculously high, given that there are almost no increased overheads for the operators. You'll often pay well more than triple regular rates, sometimes way more. Need we recall the story of the Brit who came home from holiday to find a Dh60,000 data roaming bill - the most expensive Friends episodes ever?

Early last year, Arab telco regulators agreed on a standardised regional roaming tariff, which they said would more than half the average roaming costs for customers in the Arab world. They "left the door open" for operators to voluntarily reduce rates before regulatory intervention, which many have since done. Etisalat has even said it will eventually create a single roaming system for customers in all 17 countries where it operates.

But the EU deal is pretty significant. According to the FT article, data roaming rates could be as low as €1 per megabyte. As a comparison, prepaid UAE customers pay four times as much for data downloads even before leaving the country.

There are plenty of reasons why we should not expect such significant cuts here in the Middle East.

The EU is the world's largest economy, so operators there benefit from a scale that still doesn't exist in this part of the word. And the EU is far further along the path toward a common economic and regulatory environment than the famously fractious Arab world. Can anyone seriously imagine implementing and enforcing a common regulatory system from Morocco to Yemen?