Switzerland an island for roaming costs

Mobile phones used for selfies in Switzerland Keystone

Travelling Europeans planning to use their mobile phones in Switzerland might want to reconsider – and start using a hashtag like #DontCallMeInSwitzerland – starting on Thursday.

This content was published on June 21, 2017 - 15:56

That is because roaming charges for mobile phone users in the European Union, and soon afterwards for Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, the three other countries in the European Economic Area (EEA), will be able to “roam like at home” under new EU rulesExternal link for data services, voice calls and SMS.

Left out of the deal is non-EU, non-EEA Switzerland, resulting in roaming charges for Swiss mobile phone users and Europeans travellers alike. Here’s a quick glance at what the community of those with Swiss interests need to know:

How we got here

Many Europeans used to switch off their mobile phones while travelling. More than a decade ago, the European Commission began working to reduce the consumer price of roaming. In 2013, it proposed the legislation to end roaming charges which takes effect on Thursday. 

The Swiss have been paying much more than their European neighboursExternal link for phone calls, text messages and downloading abroad. Even before its decision to abolish mobile phone roaming charges entirely, the 28-nation EU bloc had adopted binding price ceilings for roaming among operators. Since 2009, costs fell systematicallyExternal link from 49 cents per minute for making a call while roaming and €1 (CHF1.09) per megabyte of data to costing nothing extra for roaming mobile customers within the European Union as of June 15.

However, there are no such limits in Switzerland. On average, in 2015, a Swiss mobile phone customer receiving a call elsewhere in Europe paid about 25 cents per minute if on a phone contract and 50 cents per minute if using a prepaid plan, according to data from the Federal Office of Communications.External link The cost of mobile roaming data for Swiss customers using their phones in the EU has fallen considerably since its height of about CHF4.50 per megabyte in 2010 to about 10 cents per megabyte on average in 2015, excluding tax. 

Swiss mobile phone operators like Swisscom, Salt and Sunrise, which dominate the market, have been earning hundreds of millions of francs a year from roaming fees charged to customers when they use their mobile phones outside the country.

Change afoot

Anticipating the change, Swisscom cut international roaming costs as of April in a move that it said was “undercutting the price of EU providers in some cases”. It also put 26 countries into a lower-cost tariff zone, which it said reduced prices by up to 80% for some destinations.

When in Liechtenstein, customers of Swiss providers Swisscom and Salt can skip roaming charges, as long as the phone number starts with the country code + 423. Vodafone has dropped roaming charges in 40 countries, including Switzerland.

Since the change in the EU on July 15, Switzerland's largest broadband cable operator, UPC, announced the launch of new mobile phone subscriptions starting on June 28 that covers the EU area plus Switzerland. The least expensive roaming package costs CHF35 a month.

Some Swiss lawmakers want a bilateral agreement with the EU – a frequent Swiss diplomatic tool – to even things out among Swiss and other Europeans. But in a political debate over whether telephone fees should be capped, parliamentarians might be sceptical about setting limits on what the phone companies can offer customers in a contract.

In the meantime, experts advise people travelling from Germany to Italy to deactivate their data roaming when passing through Switzerland. In winter this could result in a disadvantage for Switzerland as a tourist destination if skiers on French or Austrian pistes are able to call for no extra charge. What’s more, Swiss tourists on European beaches could feel discriminated against if they can’t make unlimited calls or share unlimited photos.

Legislative hurdles

Stephan Netzle, president of ComComExternal link, the Federal Communications Commission, had his doubts that roaming charges would fall in Switzerland. In an interview with Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger published on Wednesday, Netzle said there was no reason for the EU to exclude Switzerland in the “roam like at home” scheme.

“EU citizens would benefit if they could phone more cheaply when on holiday in Switzerland,” he said. “Roaming is just one of many dossiers that we want to negotiate with the EU. It’s not the top priority.”

But EU phone companies have resisted this in Switzerland, according to Netzle, since “they have an interest in still being able to charge Swiss providers if [Swiss] customers use their [EU] network”.

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