With reporting and translation from Heba Fahmy
The cost of making a mobile phone call, sending a text message or using the internet on a phone while traveling within the GCC may become cheaper in the coming years, after Gulf ministers agreed to regulate roaming charges in the region.
The changes are expected to begin taking effect on April 1 next year, with a three-year rollout for phone calls and SMS, while charges for using data are expected to fall over a five-year period, Reuters reports.
The decision was reportedly made following the GCC Ministerial Committee for Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology, which held its 24th meeting in Doha yesterday.
Hamad Obaid Al Mansouri, director general of the UAE’s telecoms watchdog, is quoted by Emirati state news agency WAM as saying the reduced roaming charges have been introduced to play a “significant role in the promotion of tourism” within the region, helping visitors to “communicate directly with their businesses and family.”
Full details of the new rates have yet to be released. However, QNA reports one senior GCC official as saying calls from one Gulf country to another would be treated the same as a local call.
Currently, when Qatar residents travel, the two telecom operators Vodafone and Ooredoo charge QR1/minute for a local call (ie if a resident is visiting the UAE, it would cost QR1/minute to call a UAE number).
But if the traveler were to call another Gulf country, including Qatar, it would cost QR2/minute, although charges could be lower if a customer buys a roaming pack.
Ooredoo’s website shows that the roaming charges for its Qatar customers who subscribe to a Shahry (post-paid) plan and are visiting any of the other five GCC states are:
- Calling a local number within another GCC country: QR1/minute
- Calling a Qatar number from elsewhere in the GCC: QR2/minute
- Calling a non-GCC number while outside Qatar: QR17/minute
- Receiving a call while outside Qatar: QR1.5/minute
- Sending an SMS while outside Qatar: QR1
- Internet: QR15/MB
Vodafone has similar charges for calls and text messages on its standard, post-paid plan. However its cost for calling internationally (outside the GCC) is cheaper, at QR10/minute, while data at QR10/MB is also less than its rival at QR15/MB, according to its website.
The operators also offer roaming packages for customers traveling to some countries including the GCC states, which provide a bundle of services to customers for a set price.
For example, Vodafone’s roaming pack costs QR100 a week, and includes 2GB of internet, unlimited minutes to receive calls and unlimited minutes to make calls to other Vodafone Qatar numbers.
A Vodafone Qatar spokesperson said in a statement to Doha News that it was consulted on the proposed GCC-wide initiative.
However, she said that if the agreed rates are similar to those proposed during the consultation period, Qatar customers may not see much difference in their bills under the new system.
She said that the proposed rates that were sent to Vodafone by Qatar’s Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) were in fact higher than the company’s existing roaming charges for calls and data use:
“We are aware that the GCC Ministerial Committee for Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology is looking to further regulate roaming in the GCC.
Based on the proposed rates that we were consulted by Qatar’s CRA, our commercial rates are already lower than the proposed regulation. It is our strategy to be proactive to offer the best rates for roamers.”
This is not the first time that roaming charges in the region have been reviewed with an eye toward lowering prices for customers. In February 2012, all GCC countries cut their costs for those traveling within the member states from another GCC country.
Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) was involved in the consultation process ahead of the new changes.
In a statement issued in September last year on its website, the TRA said the aim of introducing the cap on roaming charges in the region was “to ensure that the terms and conditions of roaming services between the GCC member states are fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.”
Adel Darwish – TRA’s Manager of Market & Competition and a member of the GCC Roaming Working Group – added at the time that the proposed roaming caps would lead to reductions in retail roaming rates of as much as 90 percent in some cases:
“This is not all, the consultation will also touch base on other aspects of roaming which will allow consumers to be in control of their roaming costs like knowing if their bills reach a certain limit while roaming,” he said.