Virgin Media O2 'blows UK roaming door wide open'

Virgin Media O2 is set to be the only one of the four mobile network operators (MNO) in the UK that will not renege on earlier promises to refrain from reimposing roaming fees in the European Union.

Virgin Media O2, a joint venture between Telefónica and Liberty Global, said on Monday that it has decided it will not bring back the charges, which used to cause huge mobile bills when travelling within the EU.

"Customers on both O2 and Virgin Mobile will maintain their inclusive roaming in Europe Zones, so they can travel to destinations all over Europe and use their data, calls and texts just as they would in the UK," the operator said.

It had been hoped that the UK's exit from the EU would not prompt MNOs to reintroduce the unpopular roaming fees. Those hopes were soon dashed when BT-owned EE, Vodafone UK and Three UK all said they planned to bring back the charges.

EE and Vodafone have both subsequently postponed the reintroduction of roaming fees – to the end of January in Vodafone's case and until March for EE users. Both operators were originally slated to reintroduce roaming charges at the beginning of the year.

EE, Three and Vodafone are making an effort to avoid a return to the bad old days of bill shock, by implementing passes to keep a lid on costs and other measures. However, Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CC Insight, pointed out that roaming is still a "poisonous term for many."

"Horror stories of people racking up huge bills on holiday rightly led to widespread distrust and resentment toward telecom operators," Mann said.

Late last year the European Parliament and EU member states agreed to extend the existing intra-EU roaming system until at least 2032. "Roam like at home" was introduced by the European Commission in 2017.

Bucking the roaming trend

In Mann's view, Virgin Media O2 has now "blown the roaming door wide open."

"Bucking the market trend to bring back charges, its decision to hold firm will raise eyebrows across the sector and is a blow to rivals. As EE, Vodafone and then Three each confirmed they would reinstate the dreaded fees, it left the door ajar for Virgin Media O2 to break rank and disrupt the market," he said.

Virgin Media O2 now looks set to fully exploit its position as the only roaming charge-free MNO in town.

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"When the joint venture launched last June, it vowed to shake things up; this news shows it is ready to live up to this ambition. Expect it to go hell for leather in its marketing as it seeks to position itself firmly on the side of the consumer," Mann said.

Three UK also looks set to be the biggest loser from Virgin Media O2's strategy.

Three "was the first to begin to phase out roaming in 2013 and has assertively promoted its Go Roam offer as it looked to differentiate by overcoming common customer pain points. If it goes ahead with plans to bring back roaming in May, it risks undoing much of this effort," Mann said.

Virgin Media O2 has provided a helpful table to show customers what fees are being applied and when (see below).

Table 1: What roaming means for consumers

Provider Comes into effect Applies to customers who joined/upgraded after Daily charge Alternatives/notes
EE TBC March 2022 July 7 2021 £2 a day Customers can pay £10 a month for Roam Abroad add on
Vodafone TBC end Jan 2022 August 11 2021 £2 a day £1 a day for 8-day or 15-day pass
Three May 23 2022 October 1 2021 £2 a day None available
O2 No change No change N/A Can use existing data allowance up to 25GB
(Source: Virgin Media O2)

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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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