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A post-Brexit Ofcom worries us – Vodafone

Apocalypse Ahead Rusty Sign under Clouds

With the anti-China rhetoric dominating the headlines in recent months, Brexit chatter has become unfashionable. But with the deadline fast approaching, what will Ofcom look like in the future?

Speaking at a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK Chief Counsel and External Affairs Director Helen Lamprell let loose on the UK regulator. Cell tower height, rural roaming, potential reintroduction of international roaming charges, dark fibre and auction dilemmas, there seemed to be a lot of venting going on.

“The UK remains a challenging environment [regulatory], one of the most challenging in the world,” said Lamprell. “But we are seeing positive change.”

The issue which Vodafone is keeping an eye-on is Brexit. According to Lamprell, Ofcom is one of the most conservative regulators throughout the bloc, though when it is freed from the tethers of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), there is a risk it could become even more so.

There isn’t necessarily one massive bugbear from the telco, but several little aggravations which all combine to a much larger nuisance. Let’s have a look at mast height to start with.

Everyone wants signal, but no-one wants towers

As it stands, UK cell towers are limited to 25 metres in height. This obviously doesn’t take into account those masts which are placed on the top of buildings, just the actual structure itself. In most cases, this doesn’t have a massive material impact on operations, such is the population density of the UK, but when you look at countryside locations it becomes a much larger discussion.

Part of the up-coming 5G spectrum auctions will place coverage obligations on telcos. This is a reasonable request by the government, as telcos have shown they will not bridge the digital divide on their own, though as it stands 99% of the UK population is currently covered. Geographical coverage is no-where near this figure, though as there is little commercial gain from providing coverage to these remote locations, reaching the 90% objective is difficult.

One way which this could be done is by providing exemptions to the 25-metre limit in certain situations, such as the countryside, as CTO Scott Petty pointed out, for every 10-metres you go up the coverage ring is doubled.

All four of the major UK MNOs (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) are meeting with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) this afternoon, and this will be a point on the agenda. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is the department writing the rule book here though.

Should these exemptions be granted, it opens the door for shared infrastructure also, as the main cost of these structures is civil engineering and construction, not the equipment on the tower. Both of these developments combined would aid the telcos in reaching the geographical coverage objectives.

This brings us onto another interesting point raised by Lamprell, rural roaming.

My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long

“Rural roaming takes away our incentive to invest,” Lamprell said. “It’s a really, really dumb idea.”

Three are one of the companies pushing for rural roaming, but as the Vodafone team points out, it is the only MNO which hasn’t built out its rural infrastructure. However, should rural roaming be introduced it would cause a stalemate for investment.

As Petty points out, why would any MNO invest in its own infrastructure when it could force its way onto a competitor’s? All the telcos would be sitting on the starting line, waiting for another to twitch first, such is the pressure on the CAPEX spreadsheet column when investing in future-proofed infrastructure.

What is worth noting is rural roaming is a government idea and Ofcom has published a paper which outlines the pros and cons of rural roaming, removing the incentive for investment is one. The regulator is sitting very firmly on the fence here, not muddying its hands with a definitive position either way.

Moving onto the international roaming question, Vodafone is staying pretty agile right now. As it stands, the status quo will be maintained, though the team will react to the commercial realities of a post-Brexit landscape. Currently, as a member of the European Union, Vodafone is protected from surcharges when it comes to termination charges, though those protections will end with Brexit.

Vodafone has quite a significant European footprint, in most cases there is little to worry about, but for those territories which fall outside the Vodafone stomp, negotiations will have to take place.

There are several countries, Estonia is an example, which has higher termination rates than the UK. If the reality of a post-Brexit world is Vodafone is swallowing up too many charges from international calls/SMS/data, roaming charges might have to re-introduced in certain markets. This is all very theoretical currently however Vodafone would currently be prevented from replicating these charges from the European nations as it stands. A bill is currently working its way through the Commons which could allow telcos to re-introduce international roaming charges, but it has attracted considerable criticism.

Vodafone is sitting and waiting for the realities of Brexit right now, though it will not be a broad-brush approach. “Our position today is to maintain the position we are in, but we will have to evaluate the situation at the time,” said Lamprell.

Ignore Luke, the Dark Side is great

Dark fibre. It used to be a popular conversation, but everyone seems to have forgotten about it recently.

Not Lamprell.

The focus of Ofcom over the last 12 months or so has been on opening-up ducts and poles, and while this certainly is progress, it only addresses part of the problem. Dark fibre is an aspect of the regulatory landscape which could add significant benefits to the industry but has seemingly become unfashionable.

Dark fibre, fibre cabling which is not currently being utilised by Openreach, could answer the backhaul demands of the increasingly congested networks quickly and efficiently. Mainly as it is already there. There is no need to dig up roads, apply for planning permission or procure new materials, it could be as simple as flicking a switch.

Openreach resistance and Ofcom’s aggressive focus on ducts and poles is perhaps missing a trick.

Going, going, maybe not yet

The UK is currently in somewhat of an unusual and unprecedented situation. It is one of the nations leading the world into the 5G. This is not to say it is in a podium position, but compared to the 4G era, the UK is sitting pretty.

Part of the reason for this has been early auctions to divvy up spectrum assets, however, moving forward there are some irregularities which is causing some head-scratching.

Later this year, Ofcom will kick-start another auction which will see 120 Mhz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8 GHz bands, as well as 80 MHz in the 700 MHz band go up for sale. For both Lamprell and Petty, this auction doesn’t make sense. These are two bands which will be used for different purposes (coverage and speed) so why auction them off together.

If Vodafone had known this was going to happen back in April 2018, during the first spectrum auction, it might have altered its strategy.

“We could end up with a very fragmented spectrum situation,” said Petty.

From the team’s perspective, it seems Ofcom has only just woken up to the coverage demands of the UK government, and is using this auction as a blunt tool to meet the objectives. From an engineering perspective it doesn’t seem to make much sense to Vodafone.

“We are not happy with the rules,” said Lamprell. “But it’s rare for us all [MNOs] to be happy.”

Looking good but looking suspect

The UK is currently in a good position ahead of the 5G bonanza from an engineering perspective. With test hubs being set up around the country and telcos who are acting proactively, the UK looks like an attractive environment to invest in for R&D. It is by no-means leading the global 5G race, but it is in a healthy position.

However, political and regulatory uncertainty are a threat to this perception. The activities and culture of both DCMS and Ofcom over the next couple of months will has a significant impact on the 5G fortunes of the UK, as well as the ability to attract new talent, companies and investment.

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