French data-roaming competition gives a glimpse of Europe's future

Mobile operators are adding data roaming to appease customers and regulators

French operator Orange has announced a number of packages that include data roaming abroad, joining competitors in a move that is likely be replicated all over Europe as EU regulators turn up the heat.

Data roaming has long been a major worry for travelers and has for many resulted in huge bills when they return home. But that is starting to change for the better, as illustrated in France.

Orange hit back at competitors Free and Bouygues Telecom with the plans announced Tuesday. For example, with Origami Jet Premier, subscribers get up to 14GB per year during up to 60 days of data roaming, and with Origami Play, users can get up to 2GB per year during up to 14 days traveling across Europe.

Earlier this month, Free announced that its subscribers can use up to 3GB, after which the data speed is throttled, during 35 days in Italy and Portugal. Bouygues also announced plans with 3GB of data during up to 35 days, but across Europe.

The packages are about giving subscribers peace of mind about the charges they are incurring and ease of use while traveling, but also about adjusting plans in preparation for more E.U. regulation, according to a spokesman at Orange.

The European Commission's goal is now to get rid of roaming premiums by 2016. In light of that, now is a good opportunity for mobile operators to be preemptive and at the same time offer something their subscribers really like, according to Kester Mann, an analyst at CCS Insight.

The French operators aren't the only ones including data roaming. Three in the U.K. has for a long time been a proponent of lower roaming costs. Last year it introduced Feel at Home, which allows its subscribers to use their data, text and calling plans when traveling to Austria, Denmark, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden, as well as Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Sri Lanka and the U.S.

"It has been very popular with our customers. Data traffic in the 11 countries where we offer Feel at Home has gone up 1,000 percent. The alternative is hanging around at a coffee shop hoping for Wi-Fi, we think we can do better," said Guy Middleton, head of corporate communications at Three.

Three's ability to expand the offering to more countries is dependent on wholesale pricing, which is what the operators themselves pay. The progress made across Europe so far has been driven by wholesale caps, and if the European Commission wants to deal with the roaming issue in Europe it must revisit and extend these caps, according to Middleton.

Lowering costs for phone calls, messaging and data when citizens are traveling has been an important ongoing project for the European Commission for almost 10 years. It will get rid of roaming premiums once and for all with a mix the carrot and the stick.

"The carrot is that if the phone companies offer you an EU wide phone plan we'll exempt them from almost all of the E.U. roaming regulation. But if they don't do that, you as the consumer will still have a way to escape roaming charges. ... You'll be able to choose a different operator every time you travel to a new E.U. country, if you are not happy with the prices your operator is providing," said Ryan Heath, spokesperson for the digital agenda on the Telecom Package, last September.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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