European Union wants cheaper price for sending text messages abroad

The cost of sending a text message abroad is too high and must be capped, the EU's telecoms chief said Tuesday.

EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding said mobile phone operators had failed to answer her pleas to slash roaming fees for text messages and she would put forward rules to cap charges in October.

A report from European telecoms' regulators suggested that prices be capped at between euros 0.11 (US$.17) and euros 0.15 (US$.24) for each message. The average price across the EU was euros 0.29 (US$.46), it said, but this can go as high as euros 0.80 (US$1.27) for Belgian customers.

Reding also warned of possible action on mobile Internet charges, saying these are still "heavily overpriced."

Her attack on text messages comes just a year after the EU capped the costs of voice calls made and received abroad. Costs for calls have dropped by up to 60 percent since last summer.

"Roaming charges have already drained the wallets of mobile customers too much, especially the 77 percent of young people who send texts while using their mobile abroad," she said. "EU citizens should be free to text across borders without being ripped off."

Europeans send some 2.5 billion text messages every year when they travel outside their own borders - and pay 10 times more than they would for messages sent when they are at home.

The European Commission said a new Web site listing roaming charges showed wide differences in what people are charged across Europe. A Swedish tourist in Spain would pay up to euros 0.40 (US$.63) to text home while a British friend could be charged as euros 0.63 (US$1; 40 British pence).

Reding said only one mobile phone operator in Austria had bothered to respond to her call to bring down prices by July 1.

She was more cautious about taking action on data services which charge BlackBerry or 3G phone users per megabyte, or MB. Prices for using mobile Internet from abroad range widely from euros 0.25 (US$.40) per MB to over euros 16 (US$25) per MB, the EU said.

Regulators warned that many customers see "bill-shocks" because they don't know how much they are being charged - and this may stop businesses from using mobile Internet.

They criticized the rates mobile operators charge each other to transfer data, saying high wholesale rates prevent smaller operators offering cheaper services.

Telecoms companies claim they are bringing down prices gradually as more people use data roaming services - and say this is a new market where regulation would be a bad idea.

Telecoms companies claim otherwise.

Telefonica's O2 says it has reduced data roaming prices by more than 40 percent since April, Vodafone says it has cut the price per megabyte by 45 percent, and France Telecom's Orange promises it will soon offer cuts of up to 90 percent on standard data roaming prices.

Mobile Internet use has been expanding in recent months, phone companies say, but the draw isn't pricing - it's the rollout of social networking sites like Facebook and gadgets like Apple Inc.'s iPhone.