Ill communication: Will Brexit end EU roaming in the UK? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 13.06.2019
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Brexit vs. EU Roaming

Ill communication: Will Brexit end EU roaming in the UK?

EU roaming — the ability to use your cell around Europe at no extra charge — is seen as part of Europe's digital future. So, if Brexit ever comes, will it bring "no roaming, no future"?

The debate over EU roaming went back and forth for years.

In Brussels, the European Commission kept pushing for the major telcos to make it easier for people and businesses to take their mobile communications with them, wherever they went in Europe.

Read more: Many Germans unaware of EU benefits

They would say things like "We can't have a single digital market, where you're driving your connected car of the future from one country to another, but suddenly it stops at a border, because it can't access the local mobile network!"

"That would be crazy!" said one or more digital DGs.

Trust me. They said stuff like that. I have it on tape.

Meanwhile, the telcos kept pushing back. They said they didn't have the infrastructure, or that they would have to piggyback on foreign cells, and, anyway, it was too expensive.

Two women outside Buckingham Palace in London, UK, taking a selfie on a smartphone, or calling home (picture alliance/empics/J. Stillwell)

"Hi, mom! We're at Buck House. Where are you right now?..." Brexit might make FaceTime with mom in Rome prohibitive

Well, they were sentiments to that effect.

In any case, they didn't make it easy for people at the European Commission — that's the feeling I got whenever I spoke to Roberto Viola or Vesa Terava at DG Connect.

And that's even though we were talking about companies such as Vodafone, T-Mobile and Telefonica, who boasted (and still boast) market dominance across the bloc.

Listen to audio 07:17

Free to roam in Europe? Not likely.

Next generation magic

But, then, and perhaps with the promise and threat of the next generation 5G networks creeping up on them, they found a way.

On June 15, 2017, Europe's telcos magically made it happen.

Since then anyone traveling on an EU mobile plan can use their cell phone in a participating country without the fear of prohibitive roaming costs.

So, for instance, if you're on a German plan and in the UK (as I often am), you can text, phone locally and phone home to Germany, surf the web, stream content and perhaps even do the fandango — all within your usual data and other allowance.

In May 2019, a few costs and limitations — on fair use issues — emerged.

Read more: Why is 5G mobile broadband technology such a mystery?

But it's still a pretty good deal.

In or out, you can be in

And here's why I referred to "participating" countries up above: You don't actually have to be in the EU to take part in the scheme.

That means that companies in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein can offer EU roaming even though those countries aren't EU member states.

It even works if you're in a colony of an EU country in South America — French Guyana. So if you're passing by for a European rocket launch, you can post your selfies literally from the middle of nowhere.

So where does that leave the United Kingdom, if and when Brexit actually happens?

Well, chances are the Brits could have their custard creams and eat them.

"It's impossible to tell what the UK's relationship with the EU will look like in future," says Dirk Wende at Deutsche Telekom, the home of T-Mobile. "But, then, our mobile tariffs already cover countries like Norway and Switzerland, and they're not in the EU."

It's up to them

EU roaming, it seems, is a bit like ESA, the European Space Agency. They are both European, and both open to outsiders, too.

So, while ESA has 22 firm member states, Canada and Slovenia hold a certain honorary status.

The UK could do the same with EU Roaming — even though it means dealing with the European Commission, and we all know how 51.9 percent of the UK hates that. But it wouldn't hurt the UK's digital telecommunications and business prospects.

"Brexit and EU Roaming really are two different pairs of shoes. And it's up to the UK to decide itself whether it wants to continue taking part in it," says Volker Petendorf at Vodafone Germany.

"But we see no signs at the moment of their wanting to leave the regulation," says Petendorf, "so it looks like there will be no change if Brexit happens."

Over at Telefonica, the Spanish firm that runs O2 both in Germany and the UK, they're taking the long view — just like their competitors.

That long view being that Brexit keeps getting postponed.

"Since Brexit just recently got pushed back to October 31, there will be no changes for EU Roaming for now," says Jörg Borm.

"Of course, we are monitoring the political situation very closely," says Borm. "And when we know what Brexit looks like, and depending on our agreements with our roaming partners, we'll be prepared to say more."

Listen to audio 05:42

A deal on net neutrality

It may seem strange to think that a company of Telefonica's size would defer to third parties — they have a huge presence across South America, too — but Borm points out that EU roamers can choose freely which network they use.

No one has to "roam like at home," as the original slogan put it.

And that may be just what the UK decides itself — come Brexit. It may, as with so much else, go its own way.

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