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Ofcom Move to Protect UK People from Mobile Roaming Bill Shocks

Thursday, Jul 20th, 2023 (9:46 am) - Score 2,104
Mobile phone communication vector concept for web banner, website page

Ofcom has today proposed new rules to force mobile network operators, such as Three UK, Vodafone, EE and O2 (inc. MVNO operators), to protect consumers who travel abroad from mobile BILL SHOCKS on data (broadband), call and text charges by introducing new roaming alert protections for consumers and small businesses.

At this point you might well think that such protections already exist, probably because you’ve seen or been told about them before, but you’d only be partly correct. At present, most of the market’s primary mobile operators, except O2 (VMO2), have scrapped inclusive (free) EU roaming in favour of a return to charges (e.g. a surcharge of £2-£4 per day is quite common) – often despite originally pledging that they wouldn’t perform such a U-turn.

Post-Brexit, the UK Government also introduced some limited protection against the risk of future EU roaming BILL SHOCKS by adding a legislated cap of £45 +vat on roaming charges, including related warnings / SMS messages about roaming charges. But this was a time-limited protection, which came to an end in June 2022, and since then most mobile operators have voluntarily opted to retain the warning system.

However, Ofcom says they’ve been reviewing customers’ experiences of roaming (both in the EU and more widely) to understand whether customers are adequately protected from potential harms when roaming, which has uncovered concerns that the information provided by mobile operators can be “inconsistent and unclear“.

Research Findings

➤ 19% of holidaymakers are unaware they could face extra charges when using their mobile abroad.

➤ 18% of holidaymakers said they do not research roaming charges before travelling.

➤ 94% of travellers are aware of roaming alerts and 84% read them.

➤ Of those travellers who read their alerts, 94% rate them as either essential or helpful when they first begin to roam and 72% modify their behaviour when they see one – such as connecting to Wi-Fi (29%), using less data (26%) and switching off data roaming (24%).

➤ 14% of UK mobile customers suffered from inadvertent roaming when both abroad or still in the UK, including 2% of customers connecting to French networks while on the English coast (i.e. when a device connects to a network in a different country even though the customer is not physically in that country). This is a particular issue for people in Northern Ireland, where 22% of customers reported roaming onto networks in Ireland in the last year.

Ofcom does not have the power to stop mobile providers charging customers for using their services when travelling, so instead the regulator is proposing new rules and guidance that would require all UK mobile operators to tell their customers when they start roaming, how much it will cost them and any action they can take to limit their spend.

Ofcom’s Three Proposals

1. Requiring providers to send customers roaming alerts so they can make informed decisions and are protected from unexpected bills

We are consulting on new rules requiring providers to notify customers when they start roaming (both in the EU and rest of world destinations) and for that notification to include clear, comprehensible and accurate:

• personalised information on roaming charges (including specifying any fair use data limits and the time period that apply to any daily charges);

• personalised information on mobile bill limits (if the customer has one and what it is set at) and inform customers how to put one in place or amend it; and

• where to find free to access, clear, comprehensible and accurate additional information on roaming.

While regulatory protections are already in place to ensure that customers are given pricing information and the option to set a mobile bill limit at the time they contract for mobile services, the roaming alert is intended to ensure customers are provided with timely, clear and accurate information at the point of roaming. It should ensure they can make an informed decision about the use of roaming services and mobile bill limits, helping to protect customers from harms such as unexpected roaming bills.

Our proposals take account of providers’ current practice to provide alerts to customers at the point of roaming and customer research findings on the information customers reasonably need to make informed decisions about roaming. Our proposals aim to set out clearly Ofcom’s expectations on price transparency and in some places, go further than some providers’ current practice. For example, we are proposing that providers’ notifications include information about how customers can set a mobile bill limit, any fair use data limit that applies in their case, and the time period that applies to any charges billed on the basis of time.

2. Requiring providers to protect customers against the impact of inadvertent roaming

Our proposals on roaming alerts should ensure that customers are alerted to the fact that they are roaming, including where this is inadvertent. However, considering the potential for harm and to help protect customers from the impacts of inadvertent roaming we are also proposing to require providers to:

• have measures in place to enable customers to reduce and/or limit expenditure related to inadvertent roaming while they are in the UK (e.g. through the use of a special tariff).

• provide clear, comprehensible and accurate information to customers about the above measures and also how to avoid inadvertent roaming in and outside of the UK, particularly in border regions.

This approach takes account of providers’ current practices such as special tariffs or treating certain roaming usage as UK usage which protects customers from the impact of inadvertent roaming while in the UK. This will particularly benefit customers in Northern Ireland who can experience inadvertent roaming on a regular basis.

3. Guidance setting out expectations and examples of good practice

We are also consulting on draft guidance on our proposed roaming rules to provide greater clarity to providers on how they can comply as well as to promote good practice. This includes examples of roaming alerts and steps that providers are already taking to help customers in Northern Ireland protect themselves from inadvertent roaming (e.g. treating Ireland usage as UK usage).

Ofcom said they will consult upon these proposals until 28th September 2023 and will then publish their final decision during “early 2024“.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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13 Responses
  1. Avatar photo BILL SHOCKS says:

    Try to stop me ofcom, idc.

  2. Avatar photo Sam says:

    This is a case of personal ignorance by the part of the market. If you travel and do not inform yourself that there are free options, then you are choosing to cater to greed

    1. Avatar photo Jon says:

      I 100% agree, it’s deserved. This has been in the news NON STOP, every provider texts you enough about it that only a complete idiot – like so stupid that I doubt they can use a phone – would manage to have any kind of “shock”

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      In my long experience, humanity has a vast spectrum of different experiences, and not everybody is as clever as you*, not everybody has the time to read up on these things, not everybody has the mental space in their life to worry about whether they’ll be pillaged by their phone company when grabbing a few days respite, etc etc.

      I suspect that Ofcom’s well meant plans will be implemented yet deliver nothing, because the network operators will be sure to couch any warning in boring, legalistic or procedural text that doesn’t enable people to respond quickly and effectively. If we all got a text as soon as the phone suspected we were roaming that said “Oi! We’re going to ream you out with roaming charges unless you turn off roaming, or you can buy yourself a local sim card”, then that’s actionable. But it won’t be like that.

      * Not a facetious comment, I fully expect the majority of readers of this website to be significantly brighter than average.

  3. Avatar photo Martyn says:

    They should also look at roaming once onboard aircraft –
    My friend boarded Malaysian airlines to KL November 2022, approximately 30 mins after take off his phone connected to the onboard service without warning because he had roaming activated on his device which was in his hand luggage. Eventually he took it out to listen to music stored on his phone, it was at this point that he found it was connected and had been consuming data to the tune of £45.

    The first notification he got was an onboard announcement that you could purchase data, the second was on his phone from 3UK roaming, at no point did he connect himself or agree to roam while onboard.

    1. Avatar photo 10BaseT says:

      Same thing is on Stena ferries operating on Baltic sea, probably on these operating between UK and NL too. But there is very clear information displayed in many places on ferries and I bet same applies to planes. The price comes from uplink operators like Telenor providing this service.

    2. Avatar photo Kevin says:

      Should have been in airplane mode anyway.

    3. Avatar photo 10BaseT says:

      No it shouldn’t be anymore.

  4. Avatar photo Dan says:

    100% agree with Kevin. The cabin crew literally tell you to put your phone into flight mode before takeoff.

    1. Avatar photo EU says:

      Not always the case – my last cabin crew didn’t tell us before takeoff

    2. Avatar photo Dan says:

      @EU Fair enough. Personally, I don’t think I’ve been on a flight since mobile phones became ubiquitous where they didn’t say it.

  5. Avatar photo Leonard Webster says:

    Just been moved to EE and the deal breaker for me was no roaming charges in the EU. This was agreed to and activated, so you can negotiate no roaming charges. Interestingly EE charge for roaming but BT who own EE do not.

  6. Avatar photo Raj says:

    Where I work, there are 3 separate protection mechanisms in place to prevent roaming charges.

    1) Bill cap.
    The default is £5 unless changed. Option to change is provided at time of purchase as per Ofcom regs. It can also be changed at any time by the customer.

    2) Roaming bar (optional).
    Applying the bar will restrict international charges like roaming overspend.

    3) “High usage limit” (opt-out only).
    This is a special bar that restricts all accounts from exceeding £45 overspend. It applies to all accounts and is independent of bill cap. This is to protect “uncapped” customers from mistakenly raking up £100s on their bills.

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