It wasn't long ago that a holiday phone bill could cost the same as your flight, hotel and inevitable late check-out fee combined. But last year, EU law abolished extortionate roaming rates, meaning you could order an Uber in Berlin, check the weather in Bruges or go to Bergen and waste an entire evening scrolling through Instagram without a single care in the world.
Then Brexit happened, and now the future of this vast improvement to all European travel is at threat.
"If the government doesn't act, UK residents could lose the right to 'Roam Like at Home' when using their phone while travelling after Brexit, potentially costing consumers more as a result," says Alex Neill, Managing Director of Home Products and Services at Which? "People will expect that protection from big bills will continue after Brexit, so EU law on roaming needs to be transferred into UK law. The government must also reach a trade agreement that limits wholesale charges for UK operators from mobile companies in the EU, so that customers can continue to use their networks when abroad without extra costs."
However, considering the government's Brexit team still has almost everything to negotiate, and that they are famously terrible at negotiating, I wouldn't count on this getting sorted any time soon.
"Following Brexit, a number of scenarios are possible," reads a House of Commons briefing paper on the issue. "Some commentators have warned that prices for wholesale and retail roaming services will increase if a replacement for the reciprocal price caps on wholesale roaming charges is not agreed."
The government has indicated that the re-introduction of retail roaming charges could depend on whether operators themselves want to offer surcharge-free roaming services. Therefore, particularly in the event of a no-deal Brexit, buccaneering network operators would have carte blanche to restore the 45p/min calls and £6 per MB of data that the EU forbade against their wishes. Greed, in theory, could trump common decency and send British holidaymakers, and visitors to the UK, back to where we were over a decade ago.
So what are the Big Four networks' plans?
- Three states it will maintain the EU roaming standard post-Brexit at no extra cost.
- An 02 spokesperson said, "We're engaging with the government with regards to what may happen once the UK officially leaves the EU."
- A Vodaphone spokesperson said: "We have no intention of introducing roaming charges after Brexit, and no plans for our European markets to exclude the UK from Roam Like at Home after Brexit."
- An EE spokesperson said: "EE customers have a choice of great value roaming products and controls to help avoid unexpected bills. While we currently do not have any plans to change our roaming services, we hope the government will put consumers at the top of their agenda in the Brexit negotiations to help ensure that UK operators can continue to offer low prices to our customers."
While these statements sound promising, ultimately, unless the UK replaces EU legislation – which seems unlikely – there will be nothing to stop companies going back on their word.
This uncertainty does little to dispel fears that Brexit means the ghost of the UK past – an era, don't forget, when Jim Davidson's Generation Game was celebrated as essential Saturday night viewing – will soon be visiting to remind us of what we once were.
"As the world is shrinking and more of us travel frequently and have our first kiss abroad, it was natural that infrastructures would finally catch up," says Candice Sinclair, who was charged £200 after meeting a Swiss guy she couldn't stop calling, before the EU rules were introduced. "It's frustrating to not be certain whether it will remain or if Brexit will force us into our smaller tribes again, while the rest of Europe continues Erasmus-ing, long-distance calling and inter-railing across the continent."
The problem was just as real for Brits abroad.
"Roaming charges often interfered with everyday life," says Rose Nolan, who got a surprise after using her 3G before setting up the wifi in her French apartment while she was on an exchange. "All of a sudden I had racked up £100 in roaming charges."
Remember when the Leave campaign promised that Brexit would allow us to "take back control"? This is what that could look like.
UPDATE 2PM, 19/02/18: This article was updated to include comment from Vodaphone and EE.
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