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UPDATE UK Moots National Mobile Phone Network Sharing to Boost Coverage

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 (8:01 am) - Score 853

The Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has confirmed that they’re discussing a proposal with Mobile Network Operators (e.g. Three UK, Vodafone, EE and O2) to boost mobile broadband (3G, 4G) and general mobile service reception by encouraging greater sharing of masts and a national roaming policy.

At present the Government-backed £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) is already working to help build new mobile masts to cover those who live in areas of poor or non-existent service, which should benefit around 60,000 premises and also help to ensure that Mobile Broadband services become available to “at least” 98% of UK people by the end of 2015.

But the MIP will not solve all of the problems and, as most people already know, the figures for network coverage often do not reflect reality on the ground, where signal reception can frequently break or diminish to the point of being virtually unusable (note: this is not just a rural problem, it also happens in urban areas).

Even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has admitted that he’s occasionally had to dart back to work from family holidays in Cornwall due to a lack of mobile reception. Mr Cameron said (here): “This is a really big issue for people all over the country – the ‘not-spots’. It’s not good enough to say here’s the mobile coverage for the whole country. You have got to recognise a lot of people are making important calls while they are on the move.”

As a result the government, which recognises that some operators can have better coverage in certain areas than others, are investigating whether or not they can force the big MNO’s to share their infrastructure (masts) and possibly introduce some form of national roaming agreement.

A DCMS Spokesman told the BBC:

The government has made clear it wants to ensure the UK has world-class mobile phone coverage as part of our investment in infrastructure for the long-term economic plan.

We are investing up to £150m to improve mobile coverage in areas where there is currently no coverage from any of the Mobile Network Operators.

Of course we want to look at what more can be done in areas with poor coverage.”

Admittedly the primary mobile operators already have network sharing agreements in place (e.g. O2 + Vodafone and EE + Three UK), although these usually keep some separation and the Government appears to be looking at a much more extensive approach that’s unlikely to be universally welcomed by the operators (note: last year’s 4G auction also suffered significant delays over arguably far smaller issues).

In particular, if you’ve just spent hundreds of millions to give your network an edge in particular areas then what incentive is there for you share that with your rivals (reciprocal arrangements in specific areas perhaps)? Likewise operators might be discouraged from making future investments for fear that rivals would get a free ride. Meanwhile the EU are also working towards cutting roaming fees altogether (i.e. what you pay domestically would be the same while roaming around the EU), which could complicate matters.

Adrian Kennard, MD of Andrews & Arnold (AAISP), said:

One of the things that concerns me is how it may affect the services A&A offer, as we now do SIMs, and from next month expect to have roaming SIMs as well. We are expecting that our cost prices for roaming and non roaming will be different, so I do have to wonder how the legislation will be drafted.

Our prices are simple, for calls on O2 in the UK is is 2p/minute for the mobile leg, and we expect roaming costs to be simple too, the same price for all EU roaming, but a higher price than 2p/min.

If we are actually forced to make roaming the same price as non roaming that means we will be forced to increase the cost of non roaming, which is crazy. Hopefully the way we do things will fall outside the rules by some means and we won’t be forced to increase prices.”

The Government apparently believes that its existing legislation might be enough to force through a solution, although what form that might take and how much benefit it would bring is currently open to debate. Ultimately mobile operators are independent commercial companies and the Government aren’t yet proposing to nationalise their infrastructure.

However it’s worth remembering that Ofcom are currently also threatening a massive licence fee hike to operators of the 900MHz and older 1800MHz radio spectrum (here) and it wouldn’t surprise us if a limited agreement could be reached that would also involve some mitigation of that threatened rise.

Lest we not forget that there’s a General Election coming next year, so expect plenty of new promises and big ideas.. many of which won’t materialise.

UPDATE 9:55am

The Mobile Operators Association (MOA), which represents all four of the major operators on issues of radio spectrum and planning, has said “National roaming isn’t the silver bullet that is being suggested. It will take years to implement and will not address the problem of notspots. National roaming would be a disincentive to build more infrastructure. And it is technically difficult and expensive to set up national roaming, and customers would face more dropped calls.”

Instead the MOA has said that a better course of action to boost mobile coverage would be to both reform the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and remove barriers like costly business rates in rural areas and expensive backhaul / power supplies.

Leave a Comment
8 Responses
  1. Avatar DTMark says:

    “In particular, if you’ve just spent hundreds of millions to give your network an edge in particular areas then what incentive is there for you share that with your rivals”

    That’s what I thought when I read this.

  2. Avatar dragoneast says:

    You can do anything at a price, which will be paid by the consumer. But that never worried a politician (or a commentator/journalist). They just claim it all on their expenses!

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      Politicians, in their grab for money – literally, taxing fresh air – created a structure which encourages frequency “hogging” and monopolisation.

      I recall wondering why, at the time, they didn’t licence frequencies on a site by site basis first come, first served, which would have incentivised rapid rollout.

      But the draw of the “free” money was just too strong.

      It’s like the government is run by children incapable of seeing the logical outcome of their actions.

  3. Avatar Bodincus Padus says:

    It’s like the government is run by children incapable of seeing the logical outcome of their actions.

    You don’t say.

    After all we have a Chancellor that doesn’t have a single, small qualification in anything that could be linked anyhow, even remotely, to Finance or the economy at large.

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      Quite so. Portillo had it right: “This country has always been run by amateur politicians”

      I think Osborne has a degree in history like Gordon Brown had.

      But then the thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.

  4. Avatar Tim says:

    It’s an interesting idea but has many flaws.

    If the network that does have coverage somewhere has to carry every customer then it’d probably be over loaded. There is no level playing field, EE own the most bandwidth and good range of frequencies and have a head start. So EE would be the one to gain from this the most. But with the load of 3 other networks EE would likely grind to a standstill.

    Did the government forget about the work already being done?
    O2 already share sites with Vodafone. http://bit.ly/1nyYMV6
    EE and Three are to share masts also. http://bit.ly/1pFJnqx

    I still can’t believe how poor 3G coverage is in the UK! I live in a City and still can’t make a reliable call inside my flat. No one is providing 4G here yet either and even if they did VoLTE hasn’t been enabled yet. So something really does need to be done to push the networks to deploy faster but national roaming probably isn’t the answer.

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      Take an area which has two operators and they agree to share frequencies.

      Operator A’s transmitter goes down. No problem, everyone can hop onto operator B.

      What might that do to the incentive for operator A to fix their broken transmitter in any timely manner?

      Or in another example, operator A has only 3G but operator B has 4G.

      What might that do to the incentive for operator A to upgrade their transmitter?

      If the cross-charging between the networks is high (that would be one incentive) then the thing fails outright as an idea anyway.

      Perhaps not insurmountable problems, but it needs some thought.

  5. Avatar blueacid says:

    So while the customer might not be charged for roaming, one must consider how much the networks will charge one another.

    Will the rate be punitive enough to make it worthwhile to build out their networks to ensure the same coverage? Although, then, a big gamble to blink first and be first to expand into an uncovered area – will the others respond quickly and build their networks out to match, thus upping the overall costs of running the network without significant income from roaming to pay for the costs in that area –AND– without then being able to duck out from covering that area.

    Also, what requirements will be placed on the networks elsewhere? I know that Three have an arrangement to use parts of EE’s 2G network in more remote areas but that it’s not possible to use this in areas where Three believe they have sufficient coverage themselves: therefore you can be out of Three signal in a city centre, perfectly within range of the EE 2G network but unable to use it. Seems fair in this instance, but how will that situation change with the advent of such an agreement I wonder?

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