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UK Mobile Operators Say NO to National Network Roaming

Monday, September 8th, 2014 (8:54 am) - Score 975
wireless broadband internet mast

As expected the Government appears to have failed in its first tentative bid to boost mobile voice and Mobile Broadband coverage around the United Kingdom by attempting to encourage greater sharing of masts (network infrastructure) in the hope of fostering a national roaming policy.

The £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) is already working to improve coverage by helping to build new mobile masts in order to serve those who live in areas of poor or non-existent service, which should benefit around 60,000 premises. The MIP covers the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure and this provides the service to areas that have no coverage at all (the network can then be used by all operators).

But the MIP will not solve everything because, 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 also happens in urban and sub-urban areas). In addition, it’s often possible to get reception from some but not all operators in the same area.

Back on June 2014 it was revealed that the Government’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, had tentatively proposed solving this problem by nudging the four major mobile operators (EE, Three UK, O2 and Vodafone) into some form of controversial National Roaming Agreement (here). This would have gone beyond the limits of existing network sharing agreements between major operators.

Unsurprisingly the proposal was not popular. Indeed commercial mobile operators that have spent billions to give their network an edge would see little incentive from handing such a huge benefit over to rivals, which may not have made the same level of investment. Furthermore operators might be discouraged from making future investments for fear that rivals would get a free ride. All this comes at a time when Ofcom are also threatening a huge licence fee hike (here).

The Mobile Operators Association (MOA) agreed, “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.” The MOA suggested that it would be better to tackle the issue by reforming the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and removing barriers, such as costly business rates in rural areas and expensive backhaul / power supplies.

According to an article in Sunday’s FT (paywall), sources have allegedly confirmed that the proposal was “rejected” as unworkable by all operators due to a variety of understandably complex “technical and legal” reasons. Apparently Mr Vaizey has now asked operators to come up with an alternative proposal for tackling the problem. In a statement Mr Vaizey said, “There are [still] areas of the UK that have coverage from some MNOs but not all of them. We’re looking closely at ways to improve mobile coverage in these areas, including national roaming.”

The idea of a national roaming service is fair but, short of effectively nationalising all four operators, it’s difficult to envisage how such an approach could be implemented. Meanwhile the EU are separately working towards scrapping roaming fees and ironically it’s already cheaper in some corners of the UK to make a call by roaming onto a French network than to use a UK provider, assuming you can get reception.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
4 Responses
  1. Avatar Stephen

    The MIP seems a bit of a joke to me. Apparently my area has been checked for the last 18 months for suitable sites to use & now it turns out that only areas with no 2G or 3G by ANY operator will be considered. Surely they could have worked this out 18 months ago. There must be very few areas that don’t have any signal by any operator but there are lots of poorly catered for areas who may only have 1 or 2 IPS’s providing 2G. Surely these are the areas that need help and need it fast.

    • Avatar gerarda

      The original intention of the MIP was cover 6 million premises, but that appeared to simply reflect George Osborne’s inability to grasp numbers as was scaled back to a token 60,000.

  2. Avatar Alec Robertson

    It’s a surprise they said no is it?

    Why don’t they just make it a law. Problem solved.

  3. Avatar Tim

    Could cash in on this and start a MVNO that can used all 4 UK networks… If only I had money to throw at a business this might be a good one to start.

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