* EU parliament approves steeper mobile phone roaming caps
* Telecom firms must let users switch provider when abroad
* Commission, EU governments must consider rule changes
By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS, Feb 28 (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers voted for steeper cuts to mobile phone roaming charges on Tuesday, in a move that could lower the cost of making phone calls when abroad by up to two thirds within two years.
The move was the third round of roaming regulation from the EU to cut charges that consumer groups call superfluous and which some large telecoms companies rely on for up to 7 percent of revenue.
Consumers pay roaming fees abroad because networks in the country they are visiting have to work a little harder to route a call or a message to the phone.
Single market advocates, such as consumer groups and lawmakers in the EU parliament, want to see the charge eventually scrapped by 2016.
The legislature will now have to try to convince the European Commission -- the EU’s executive arm -- and 27 EU governments to approve the lower caps before June, when current roaming regulation expires.
The parliament’s decision paved the way for a lowering of charges on calls made while abroad to 0.25 euro ($0.33) per minute by June from a maximum 0.35 euro now.
That cap would fall to 0.15 euro in 2014 if the parliament’s proposals win the support of EU governments.
In addition, companies will have to allow their customers to switch providers within one working day when abroad before 2014.
The caps agreed by EU lawmakers undercut initial proposals made by the EC in July.
“In a European Union with a single market there should not be any difference in calling from one EU member state to another,” said Judith Merkies, a Dutch labour member of the European Parliament in favour of stricter regulation.
The draft rules also include proposals to cap EU data roaming charges for the first time. The parliament voted for a 0.20 euro per megabyte cap while the EC set the bar at 0.50 euro.
EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who advocates the elimination of roaming charges, will not need much convincing to support the cuts. In a speech on Monday, she reiterated support for having a ‘pick-and-mix’ of service providers while surfing the internet abroad.
“In my mind, local break-out is the best answer for data users. It is a simple solution which you can select and log onto just as easily as to a wifi network,” she said.
Governments are likely to be more receptive to arguments from incumbent telecoms companies such as Deutsche Telekom , France Telecom, and Telefonica, which have spoken out against a double whammy of caps and more competition for cheaper roaming costs.
“The Commission proposed a higher level of caps as this is necessary for any structural solution to work,” said Frederick De Backer, Telefonica’s manager of regulatory affairs.
“The caps proposed by the European Parliament are far too low to attract any new player to enter the roaming market, or even for an established player to offer decoupled roaming,” De Backer said.