Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Question 3: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he proposes to direct ComReg to enter into negotiations with the various mobile telephony service providers to eliminate roaming charges island-wide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20112/05]
I have no function in the setting of pricing for phone services. The regulation of telecommunications operators, including pricing for mobile services, is the responsibility of the Commission for Communications Regulation, or ComReg, in accordance with the requirements of the Communications (Regulation) Act 2002 and regulations made under the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications.
Earlier this year I welcomed the publication of a joint ComReg and Ofcom report which was published in January 2005 on cross-Border telecommunications issues. The report covers cross-Border mobile telephone roaming. I am delighted that ComReg and Ofcom have adopted a common approach to tackle this issue of mutual concern to businesses and the public on both sides of the Border. On 24 March 2005 I issued a press release with my Northern Irish ministerial counterpart, Mr. Barry Gardiner MP, following a joint meeting with ComReg and Ofcom, which expressed concern at mobile phone customers being caught by roaming mobile signals along the Border and incurring international charges for what they think are national calls.
I support the report's call for the mobile operators to enter into joint arrangements on a cross-Border basis to offer customers all-island tariffs. While I acknowledge that a number of operators already offer all-island tariff options, it is disappointing that where these are available they are limited to bill-paying customers and business contracts. I would like to see all-island rates extended to pay-as-you-go mobile users who represent around 70% of the mobile customer base. I appreciate that entering into such arrangements would involve business decisions which are a matter for the operators.
I have already taken the opportunity in meetings with the operators to raise this issue and will continue to do so. I will also raise the issue with the new Northern Ireland Minister concerned.
The Commission for Communications Regulation and the Northern Ireland communications regulator issued a report in January 2005, as the Minister stated. They were established in 2004 and were set up to examine solutions to inadvertent roaming charges. Despite all the spin, promises and reports, little has been done. A token gesture has been made to business people who can well afford to pay the charges. Two companies provide most of the services, O2 and Vodafone. For prepaid phones, customers pay at least 56 cent roaming charges to make or take a call, while O2 charges 59 cent per minute. This looks like a cartel in operation. There is no incentive to reduce these charges and the companies know that one will charge 25 cent for receiving a text message while the other will charge 49 cent for receiving a text message. This cannot be allowed to continue.
I was at a meeting of Clones Town Council last Monday week.
Does the Minister think it is right that this issue is so grave that a town council would invite all public representatives from the Cavan-Monaghan area to come to a meeting to discuss it? Does he agree that this is hitting people most who can ill afford it? If I am in Northern Ireland but on my way home to the Republic, the strong signal will follow me home and I cannot take a call without incurring international roaming charges. Does the Minister think that is right? There is no real will to address this. We set up a high powered group which has done little about it as the charges are still in place. The report suggests charging €7.50 per month plus VAT to take calls in Northern Ireland, but not to make calls.
This is a major issue. Residents on the Border are being hit harder than most by the regulation. It is not too bad for someone from the South on a one day visit, but residents in the Border areas live with this daily, including many who can least afford it. Will the Minister address this as a matter of urgency?
It is being addressed as a matter of urgency. However, one can only go so far on issues like these. I have no powers to direct companies on how much they charge. We have been trying to involve the two regulators and they have been exerting as much pressure as they can. They have been encouraging the companies to introduce an all-island tariff. They have also provided better information for consumers on tariff options and on how to avoid inadvertent roaming. Both regulators are co-operating and they are trying to create joint arrangements North and South.
We should not concentrate on this in just a North and South context. I have expressed the view to the companies concerned that we should move very quickly to an all-island market in telecommunications companies, similar to the energy market. The UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be treated as one market. I am not as pessimistic as the Deputy, but neither do I expect something to happen next week. However, the reality is beginning to dawn on these companies that consumers are becoming more aware of these issues. When there is increased competition in the market, people will vote with their feet.
ComReg has made a decision on the market dominance of these companies, which is being appealed. I cannot say anything about it for that reason.
I do not think I am being pessimistic, but I am being realistic. Children using a prepaid phone pay 99 cent per minute roaming charges in Northern Ireland to receive or to make a call. A business customer is charged 59 cent per minute. If the two companies are charging the exact same rate, that sounds like a cartel to me. The Minister has spoken about a common approach or entering into joint arrangements, but that is not bearing fruit. Both companies provide services north and south of the Border and I believe they operate in a cartel. We should encourage them to avoid imposing roaming charges.