At a virtual event today, telecom operators based in the EU and in Ukraine have signed a joint statement on their coordinated efforts to secure and stabilise affordable or free roaming and international calls between the EU and Ukraine. The Commission and the European Parliament have facilitated this joint statement and welcome its signature by 27 operators, with more joining, in the EU and Ukraine, including several EU-wide groups, and the association representing several mobile virtual network operators (MVNO Europe). After a number of spontaneous voluntary initiatives took place, the joint statement aims to establish a more stable framework to help Ukrainians displaced throughout Europe to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has disrupted the lives of millions of Ukrainians. An estimated 4.2 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, in particular to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, from where they are progressively moving to other Member States. In the face of this immediate and growing humanitarian crisis, it is essential that Ukrainian refugees have access to affordable connectivity, so that they can stay in touch with their family and friends and that they can use the Internet and have access to reliable information. The initiative of several telecom operators to waive or reduce international call charges with Ukraine and roaming surcharges for displaced people in Europe is therefore very welcome, and should be put on a broader and sustainable footing.
Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said: “The possibility to have contact to those who are dear to us and access to information is a lifeline in times of crisis. This is why, together with the European Parliament, we are supporting the initiatives of telecom operators to facilitate affordable mobile connectivity for people who have fled the war. Also we encourage for more similar measures that can make a real difference in these extraordinary circumstances.”
Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, said: “In this emergency situation many telecom operators have shown exceptional solidarity with the people fleeing Ukraine. Today they make an additional important step. We welcome the joint statement by European and Ukrainian operators to make it easier for those suffering from the Kremlin war to stay connected. This engagement will make it possible to have voluntary measures apply as widely as possible throughout Europe. People displaced across Europe will be able to phone home, and people in Ukraine will be able to phone loved ones abroad at affordable conditions.”
European Parliament rapporteur on the new roaming regulation Angelika Winzig (EPP, Austria), said: “I welcome today’s important step towards true free roaming for Ukrainian refugees. Our joint efforts have paid off and as the rapporteur for the new roaming regulation, I am particularly grateful that we could facilitate this joint statement. By lowering the wholesale caps Ukrainian operators can more readily offer free roaming within the European Union to their customers, making it easier for them to stay in contact with their family and friends back in Ukraine. This way, no additional financial burden is placed on them during these challenging times. I look forward to building on this”.
Joint action by EU and Ukrainian operators
After having reacted quickly to the humanitarian crisis with a number of voluntary measures across Europe, telecom operators have undertaken to further show their willingness to help and support Ukrainians in these tragic circumstances. Recognising the importance of connectivity in times of crisis, and under these exceptional circumstances, the aim of the joint statement is to establish a coordinated approach to ensure that both EU and Ukrainian operators can continue providing affordable connectivity to refugees from Ukraine. The operators are committing to implement voluntary measures, namely to lower wholesale charges for roaming and other charges they charge each other to enable international calls with Ukraine. This will minimise additional costs for both EU and Ukrainian operators, enabling each to cover their respective costs. At the same time, the Ukrainian signatories of this declaration commit to pass on the benefits of the voluntary measures applied by their EU partners to the end users.
The joint statement has already been signed by 24 operators based in EU, including several EU-wide groups, the association representing several mobile virtual network operators (MVNO Europe) and all the 3 mobile operators based in Ukraine. A list is available here. The signature took place under the auspices and support of the Commission and the European Parliament, and it has also been facilitated by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, BEREC, and the Ukrainian national regulatory authority, NCEC. The broad support will allow to expand the voluntary measures to support affordable connectivity between the EU and Ukraine and to make them more stable and sustainable for as long as needed.
The statement is open to all operators who wish to sign at any time, as from today, and shall apply for three months and will be reviewed to take into account the fast-changing situation, its humanitarian objectives and whether other longer-term measures by public authorities and/or industry would be more adequate. The Commission, BEREC and NCEC will continue to monitor the developments and the voluntary measures.
Other actions undertaken by operators
The signatories of this joint statement have taken, as of the first days of this crisis, many actions to ensure connectivity across the board. Telecom operators based in the EU have distributed millions of SIM cards free of charge to refugees from Ukraine. A large and increasing number of refugees using such SIM cards are also benefiting from free international calls to Ukraine. Some EU operators have also enabled free roaming and provided free WiFi and charging in border areas or shelters. In parallel, Ukrainian operators, who keep the connectivity within Ukraine and with Ukraine functioning despite military aggression, have from the early days of this crisis ensured national roaming within the country and offered free international roaming to refugees who fled the war.
EU funds can help improve communication
In parallel, EU Member States can make use of the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in financing actions to provide refugees with access to essential services such as communication services. The ESF, for instance, may finance vouchers for refugees, which they can use to purchase mobile communication subscriptions (SIM cards). The ERDF can support secure local connectivity through investment in infrastructure and related equipment for the benefit of refugees. The Commission has made sure through its Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) that there is flexibility in the rules of the ESF, the ERDF and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) to allow a swift reallocation of available funding to emergency support in the current context. These measures would contribute to the sustainability of the voluntary measures by keeping the burden on private stakeholders on both the EU and Ukrainian side manageable.