Mobile phone giant O2 was tonight facing demands from the British and Irish governments to axe roaming charges for Northern Ireland customers.
NIO Minister Angela Smith and Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern made the call following the decision of the company to abolish charges for Irish customers travelling north of the border.
Ms Smith said she had worked closely with Irish Communications Minister Noel Dempsey to put pressure on all mobile companies to address the issue.
“O2 Ireland has shown how it can be dealt with. It is now time for all the other mobile operators to follow that lead,” she said.
“Mr Dempsey and I will discuss the issue further at the end of March – I hope to see further progress by then.”
Minister Ahern, who has raised the need for an all-island telecommunications market with British officials and called on other operators to end roaming charges, said: “As it stands only Southern companies and mobile phone users stand to benefit from these moves.
“It is imperative now that O2 UK move now to replicate the move by O2 Ireland, and that other Northern telecom operators follow suit.”
More than a million mobile phone users in the Irish Republic are to benefit from cheaper call charges due to O2 Ireland’s decision to abolish roaming costs for customers travelling to the North.
The move means that consumers will no longer pay extra to make or receive calls or send text messages when they cross the border to Northern Ireland.
But O2 UK customers coming south will still be hit with roaming charges.
Noel Dempsey, Minister for Communications, said he was delighted with the move and called on other operators to follow suit.
“This is good news for O2’s customers and it is now time for the other mobile phone operators to follow their lead, particularly for pre-paid users,” the minister said.
O2 Ireland announced that pre-pay customers will be charged a new flat rate while business customers will no longer be charged international roaming rates between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The changes take effect from April benefiting 1.6m O2 mobile users in Ireland.
Mr Dempsey said that the abolition of what he described as unfair charges would help encourage an all-island approach to business.
Urging O2’s competitors to come up with similar solutions, Mr Dempsey added: “It is simply unacceptable that thousands of people travelling north and south every day are subjected to high, inadvertent roaming charges when they call or text on their mobile.”
A spokeswoman for Vodafone Ireland defended the company’s position noting that an Ireland-wide charge for cross-border roaming was introduced in January 2004.
“This tariff protects customers from incurring roaming charges by offering postpaid customers all incoming calls free of charge and all other calls at their local tariff rate while roaming on the Vodafone network in Northern Ireland,” the spokeswoman said.
The same tariff applies for Vodafone users roaming across Europe and further afield.
The business community also welcomed the move, with Chambers Ireland chief executive John Dunne insisting the move would help border firms.
“Inadvertent roaming charges have been an issue for members of Chambers Ireland and affiliated chambers on both parts of the island. This action will be particularly beneficial for companies based in the border region,” Mr Dunne said.
And the IBEC CBI Joint Business Council said roaming was the most visible barrier to cross-border business and said they hoped others would follow suit.
However, Sean Farren, SDLP enterprise spokesman, said the changes did not go far enough.
“O2 is basically offering a solution to southern customers who make calls to or from the north or find themselves accidentally roaming because they are close to the border,” Mr Farren said.
“Even if this measure is matched by the O2 company in the north and competing providers, it is not the all-Ireland solution we are looking for.”