09 Feb 2021

“Roam Like at Home” in the Western Balkans as of July 1, 2021

The Necessity of the Digital Single Market…

Not only is the global economy flourishing, it is going digital also. Information and communications technology is no longer a specific business sector but the foundation of all modern innovative economic systems. The Internet and digital technologies are transforming the lives we live, the way we work –personally, in business, and in our societies as they increasingly weave their way into all sectors of our economy and community. Consequently, our lives and, especially, our businesses need to follow global trends such as competitive strategies, marketing techniques, and business models, and that would not be possible without digital connectivity.

Fast and secure digital connectivity is an essential cog in the reforms required to create a market- and investment-friendly environment. This concerns not only the single market members in the European Union (“EU”), but, even more so, countries pursuing membership of the bloc.  

…recognized by the EU

Consequently, on the initiative of the European Commission (“EC”), the EU and partners of the Western Balkans (“WB”) have started a process to boost connectivity in the region and improve access to the digital economy and society.

The Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe (“Strategy for Europe”) launched by the EU in May 2015 is designed to ensure that global digital transformation benefits EU citizens and businesses.  To set a baseline, the EC is carrying out research study with the aim to monitor progress made by the WB economies towards compliance with the EU rules for electronic communications and information society services, and convergence with the internal market.  Therefore, it was essential to introduce document similar to the Strategy for Europe, as an inherent instrument which shall regard to the WB digital market, implementing the ideas set out in the Strategy for Europe.

Accordingly, on February 6, 2018, the EC presented the Western Balkans Strategy in the Communication (“WB Strategy”) announcing six flagship initiatives for the region, including the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans (“Digital Agenda“) as one of those flagship initiatives.

It was agreed that the Agenda will contain a roadmap to lower roaming costs, supporting the deployment of broadband and of eGovernment, eProcurement, eHealth (“eService”) and digital skills. The Digital Agenda represents a joint effort of all WB partners and the EC on committing to:

  • Investing in broadband connectivity considering that good digital infrastructure is essential for the roll-out of broadband in the WB;
  • Increasing cybersecurity and digitalization of industry, will serve to support capacity building in trust and security and the digitalization of industry in the WB to ensure that all sectors benefit from digital innovations;
  • Strengthening the digital economy and society, will serve to support the deployment of eService tools and help increase digital skills among citizens by: enabling regional startups to connect and network with major European business hubs; opening Digital Opportunity Traineeship to students and young people from the WB to acquire first-hand training in digital areas; and opening the EU Code Week for all WB partners, bringing coding skills and digital literacy to the region;
  • Boosting research and innovation, will help to set up national research facilities and develop state-of-art e-infrastructures in the WB to integrate them in an emerging digital European Research Area. This effort will bring world-class training for a new generation of researchers and engineers and will promote interdisciplinary collaboration across Europe.

WB Digital Initiative

On May 17, 2018, in Sofia, WB Ministers declared a commitment to the Digital Agenda by signing the Statement of Support to the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans.  As previously mentioned, the Digital Agenda includes a roadmap for lowering roaming charges between the EU and Western Balkans partners.  Finally, on June 25, 2018, as agreed in Sofia, the WB ministers met again in Sofia and launched the Digital Agenda.

To deliver on and advance the Digital Agenda, on June 25, 2018, Western Balkan ministers signed a new Regional Roaming Agreement in Belgrade (full name: Agreement on the Price Reduction of the Roaming Services in Public Mobile Communication Networks in the Western Balkans Region – “Agreement”).  The Agreement sets down the following milestones:

1 July 2019

As of this date, users in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia pay less while using their mobile phone, making and receiving calls, sending texts and using data when they are roaming within the region. Subject regime instantly reflected on consumers who can enjoy a substantial reduction of their roaming charges within the WB region, with eight times cheaper calls and costs for data dropping on average from EUR 3/MB to EUR 0.20/MB.  In this respect, the Agreement as the new regional roaming instrument signifies a first step towards the introduction of the “Roam Like at Home” policy within the WB region.  Therefore, this transitional regime will run for two years. Hence, WB citizens can expect further reductions in roaming charges as of:

1 July 2021

At this date “Roam Like at Home” will have been rolled-out in full throughout the WB region. What will this mean for WB citizens? First and foremost, it means the end of roaming charges throughout the region.  As the signatories agree that is necessary to further reduce the prices of roaming services for the full coverage of all end users in the WB region, the maximum retail roaming charges shall be pegged to the price level according to the “home-like” rule applicable in the EU. 

The very concept of “roam like at home” implies that the citizens of one country can communicate (via messages, calls, etc.) at significantly lower prices than before, which aims to facilitate communication. When you travel outside your home country to another WB country, no additional charges will apply when using a mobile phone. Your calls (to mobile phones and fixed lines), text messages (SMS) and data services will be charged at domestic rates, i.e. the same price as calls, texts and data within your home country. The same rule also applies to any calls or text messages you receive while you are abroad – you will not be charged extra to receive calls or texts while roaming, even if the person calling you is using a different service provider.

Responsible Implementation Authorities

Electronic communications regulatory authorities of the WB countries (“Regulators”) will be tasked with implementation of the Agreement, including mobile termination rates for regulated roaming calls originating and terminating across the WB region on a reciprocity basis.  More precisely, implementation of the Agreement will be coordinated by a body established by the Regulators’ representatives. 

This step demonstrates the readiness of WB countries to cooperate, but also the support being given by European authorities in fostering such cooperation.  In this sense, there is no doubt as to the immense significance being attached to the WB Strategy and the Agreement.

It can be concluded that such changes are a massive and crucial step for WB countries.  As said, digital technologies have changed and continue to change our way of life. How quickly we adapt to those changes rests with us.