BRUSSELS, March 4 (Reuters) - European Union member states agreed to delay the end of mobile roaming charges in the 28-nation bloc until at least 2018, setting them on a collision course with EU lawmakers who want the fees scrapped this year.
Under proposals agreed on Wednesday, mobile operators such as Vodafone and Orange would be allowed to keep levying surcharges, albeit lower than the current ones, for travelling abroad.
Ending roaming charges for using mobile phones abroad is a priority for the executive European Commission, which proposed a reform of the European telecoms sector in 2013 to lower national barriers.
Wednesday’s agreement paves the way for final negotiations between the European Parliament, member states and the Commission to find a common position on the telecoms reform package.
The discussions, expected in April, will pit member states against EU lawmakers and the Commission, which recently rapped them for pushing back the end of roaming charges to 2018 and scrapping provisions on harmonising the sale of airwaves across the bloc.
“This is extremely disappointing,” said Guy Verhofstadt, president of the liberals in the European Parliament. “The only winners from it are national telecoms operators themselves.”
The European Parliament last year overwhelmingly voted to ending roaming charges within the EU by the end of 2015. It also backed rules to force Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally, a principle known as net neutrality.
Member states instead backed a more flexible version of net neutrality which would allow operators to prioritise some types of traffic for “specialised services”, such as connectivity for driverless cars, provided that the normal delivery of the Internet is not impaired.
Users will still get a “basic roaming allowance” to make calls and access the Internet when travelling within the EU up to a limited daily allowance.
Operators would be able to levy a surcharge for usage above the allowance, but it would be capped at the maximum wholesale prices operators pay each other.
Finding a way to end roaming charges has proven difficult despite the political will from Brussels to help consumers.
Member states with cheap domestic tariffs, such as those in Eastern Europe, are concerned that their operators will be forced to raise prices at home if the wholesale tariffs they pay other operators when their customers travel abroad are not lowered first. (Reporting by Julia Fioretti; editing by Jason Neely)