HomeInsightsWhen in Roam (or not) – Increased safeguards for consumers (and requirements for operators)


On 22 March 2024 Ofcom published a Statement introducing ‘new’ rules for mobile service providers in relation to the information they must provide to UK customers (with the exception of those on B2B contracts) regarding mobile roaming charges. The rules will be introduced by way of updates to Ofcom’s General Conditions of Entitlement (“GCs”) and is scheduled to take effect from 1 October 2024.

In substance the rules are not entirely new or unexpected, but the amendments to GC 3 and the ‘definitions’ section are quite extensive. So as always, the devil will be in the detail (and Ofcom’s approach to its enforcement priorities at the time).

Since July 2022 UK, as the EU Roaming Regulations fell away with Brexit, mobile operators have been free to determine the charges they impose on customers for roaming on their UK contracts outside the UK. Not all operators have taken up the opportunity to diverge from the Roaming Regulations though, with some continuing to offer ‘roam like at home’ as part of their competitive offerings.

In the absence of the Roaming Regulations (or any similar pricing requirements imposed domestically) Ofcom’s focus has therefore been on ensuring there are safeguards for protecting consumers when/if higher roaming charges are triggered. Principally, this is by way of ensuring customers have ‘adequate’ information to understand the bills they will face for roaming outside the UK in the post Brexit world and empowering them to cap their spends abroad. In this light, in July 2023 Ofcom therefore consulted on the types of safeguards it considered sensible to impose.

The new rules set out in the 22 March Statement, are largely in the same form as its provisional view in the consultation and are summarised below:

  • Mobile providers must send ‘clear, comprehensible and accurate’ roaming alerts to customers when they start roaming in a new country, at no cost. This includes:
    • Enabling customers to understand the charges they will incur, including so called ‘fair use’ limits and time limited charges.
    • Informing customers how they can place limits on the bills they incur while they are roaming.
    • Directing customers to where can find further ‘clear comprehensible and accurate’ information on roaming.
  • Mobile service providers must alert customers to the fact they are roaming and protect customers against inadvertent roaming. This includes:
    • Having measures in place (including the provision of clear, accurate and comprehensible information) to assist customers avoid inadvertent roaming while in the UK, for example, when they visit, or are close to, Ireland or the southern coast of England.
    • Providing information about how to avoid inadvertent roaming while outside the UK e.g., in border regions or smaller nations.

Ofcom has helpfully issued Guidance in parallel as part of the Statement (found at the back) to assist service providers achieve compliance. The new rules and Guidance will apply from 1 October 2024.

While the new Rules (or anything that sensibly increases consumer protection) are laudable, on a strict reading a large part of the substance or nature of the new requirements already exists in the GCs, which Ofcom does acknowledge to be fair, for example:

  • General Condition 2 which requires operators to publish ‘adequate and up-to-date’ pricing information (including in the UK and roaming);
  • General Condition 3 requires operators to provide up-to-date information that allows customers to understand charges on their bills, including inadvertent roaming, what charges will be incurred for international roaming and whether or not they are included in bundles;
  • Section 124S Communications Act requires that mobile providers cannot enter into a contract unless the customer has had an opportunity to set a bill limit and notify a customer before the limit is reached and they cannot charge over that.

While around seven months is not a lot of time for mobile operators to update their systems and processes to deal with new regulations, which can be eye wateringly complex – a fact often lost on regulators – they will have been expecting these to land, in largely the same form set out in the Consultation (in the usual way that regulators tend to ‘consult’ these days). The changes are also not a million miles from what is already expected in the GCs, so it may be a less complex task for some than others.

Ofcom has said in the Guidelines that it will take a ‘pragmatic approach to investigating compliance’, which usually means it won’t bring out the big stick straight away if operators show that they are doing everything they can. However, it will never interpret statements like this as fettering its overall discretion to act quickly and sharply if it considers operators are not making best efforts to comply or should it feel compelled by higher duties e.g., seeing evidence of widespread harm.

While it will invariably mean more compliance work and costs for mobile operators, and more administration for Ofcom, the new roaming rules should help consumers keep better informed, in real time, about the roaming deal they are on and may encourage operators to engage in further retail competition with roaming options within their bundle offerings.