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UK government outlines plans for compulsory national roaming

Cornwall mobile coverage

The department for culture, media and sport has outlined its plans to tackle so called mobile not-spots in rural UK. The proposals include the option of compulsory network sharing, which would mean allowing users national roaming much in the same way that now only happens during international travel.

The options proposed also include infrastructure sharing, giving MVNOs access to all networks, and imposing a coverage obligation where operators would be obliged by law to cover a certain percentage of the UK. However, telcos would apparently be able to decide themselves how best to achieve the coverage target.

Sajid Javid, the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport claimed he has launched the three-week consultation in order to eliminate the connectivity problem existing for about a fifth of the UK population. “I’m determined to ensure the UK has world-class mobile phone coverage as investment in infrastructure will help drive this government’s long-term economic plan,” he said.

“It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue. We’ve been talking to the mobile companies about the problem and they are working with us to find a solution.”

While Javid claims his department is working together with telcos to find a solution, the proposals for compulsory network and infrastructure sharing are strongly opposed by the industry. Members of the industry argue these measures would not only harm competition by removing some of the differentiating factors between operators, but also disincentives future investment in infrastructure.

Vodafone reiterated these points in a statement sent to Telecoms.com. “We and the other operators have already explained to the government that national roaming across the UK is fundamentally different to international roaming,” a Vodafone spokesperson said. “It would be technically far more complex, slow to implement and would cause serious problems with network resilience.”

“National roaming would also be extremely challenging from a legal and regulatory perspective as UK mobile operators have paid the Government hundreds of millions of pounds for spectrum licences on the basis of existing regulation founded on the principle of competing networks. Furthermore, national roaming would also harm the business case for further investment in rural coverage: why should any operator invest in providing better coverage for the benefit of a competitor?”

“The incentives for infrastructure deployment are very finely balanced and care must be taken to ensure that a switch to national roaming does not lead to unintended consequences,” Antony Walker, the Deputy CEO of industry group techUK said. “As Ed Richards Chief Executive of Ofcom, explained to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, national roaming could ‘disincentivise’ infrastructure investment and competition as well as have technical consequences leading to a worse overall customer experience.”

According to Javid, the government has given the industry numerous opportunities to come up with a solution to the mobile connectivity problem but have failed to do so. Again, the industry by and large would not agree as telcos say they have consistently provided suggestions on how to deal with the issue. Ideas floated by the industry have included relaxation of regulation rules on where to build new sites and how to access them more easily for maintenance purposes.

“We and the other UK mobile operators have already submitted a number of alternative proposals for a strategic partnership between industry and Government which would deliver better outcomes more effectively,” Vodafone said. “These proposals include further site sharing by operators. They would also require the Government to deliver improvements to a number of policy areas – particularly planning regulation – which are the biggest barriers to improved rural coverage, accounting for lengthy delays when operators seek to install or upgrade mobile infrastructure.”

“We fully support Government on the joint ambition to improve rural coverage,” an EE spokesperson said in a statement to Telecoms.com. “We’re keenly aware that there are some parts of the UK where customers still can’t get adequate signal levels and, while  we’re already working on some significant nationwide coverage improvement plans, we also need Government to work more closely with the industry to remove the barriers to efficiently building more signal in more places.

“What we don’t want to do is implement the flawed concept of ‘national roaming’. This will deteriorate network reliability for tens of millions across the UK, plus it also risks prices rising, which customers understandably won’t tolerate.”

Operators have also said previous years’ strong opposition from locals to build towers in many rural areas coupled with a more recent culture shift to a mobile-reliant world is partly to blame for the current situation.

It is also worth pointing out that although network sharing could lead to better coverage for some parts of the country, it would still not solve the issue entirely. According to statistics from a wireless networks performance and coverage data firm OpenSignal, the average mobile user has no connection for 15% of the time and this would be reduced ‘only’ by half through network sharing as network blackspots would still exist. Some have argued the advantage would be even lower, around 2-3%.

“National roaming only tackles partial not-spots, so it would have no impact at all on people living in UK blackspots, where no coverage is available on any network,” Ernest Doku, a telecoms expert at comparison site uSwitch.com said. “However, continued investment in our network infrastructure would help to address this issue. Allowing networks to ride on the coat tails of others would remove any incentive for underperforming networks to invest in improving their existing infrastructure.”

While the fact remains there is an issue with mobile coverage in a large part of the UK and this needs to be addressed by the industry, Javid’s proposals do not seem like the right way to go about this. It is difficult to see how his plans could work in the long term in many other ways than stifling the industry, which the government itself is constantly seeking to keep competitive through strict regulation rules. Allowing others to ride on the back of better equipped competitors would also ultimately lead to consumers picking up a higher bill as operators look to recoup lost revenues.

Furthermore, UK operators already have some agreements in place, including Vodafone’s mast sharing initiative with O2, and Three and EE’s deal to share costs associated with network infrastructure investment. Perhaps it would be a better idea for the government to let the industry continue to take some initiative, while setting reasonable targets to benefit the entire UK population.


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