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UPDATE2 UK Pushes “Unworkable” National 2G Mobile Network Roaming

Monday, November 3rd, 2014 (8:01 am) - Score 1,286

The Government’s Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, will this week shun objections by the United Kingdom’s largest mobile network operators (EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK) when he launches a new consultation on proposals that could force the operators to improve mobile reception in rural areas through greater sharing of key infrastructure (wireless masts etc.).

According to the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, over 99% of premises in the United Kingdom can receive both 2G and 3G based outdoor mobile network coverage from at least one operator (rising to 73% for 4G). But as most people have experienced the predicted percentages are a poor reflection of reality and overlook the fact that coverage “not-spots” still persist in many locations, which the regulator said was a particular problem for “some rural areas“.

Similarly even some well-served areas can have not-spots, which most often occur due to issues like the topographical height of local terrain (hard luck if your house exists in a strong vertical dip of the surrounding terrain), forests and large buildings that can obscure reception etc.

Part of this problem will be solved by the Government-backed £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which is working with Arqiva to build new masts at various points around the United Kingdom. But this will only benefit around 60,000 premises (the original plan sought to help 900,000 premises before being scaled back), which will leave many others isolated and also ignores the more familiar problem of maintaining good reception during travel.

Meanwhile the EU’s proposal to end roaming charges has added an additional dimension because in some parts of the country it’s already easier to make calls by connecting to an operator in France than the United Kingdom. In that respect it’s understandable that the Government might wish to tackle this issue, especially as it’s likely to be a vote-winner ahead of next year’s General Election.

A Whitehall source said (The Telegraph):

We want to eradicate this situation of partial not-spots … There is expected to be a consultation in the coming days and this could include a legislative option. If these companies do not change, we might force them to change.”

But forcing mobile operators to share infrastructure isn’t popular with everybody. The Mobile Operators Association said during September 2014 that such an approach would be “Unworkable … 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.”

Most commercial mobile operators have spent billions to give their respective networks an edge and would thus see little incentive from sharing that advantage with rivals, which may not have made the same investment. Similarly the operators might be discouraged from making future investment for fear that rivals would get a free ride. All this comes at a time when Ofcom is still threatening a huge licence fee hike (here).

The MOA suggests 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. But the Government appears to now be pressing forward with its roaming plan despite the commercial concerns.

We’ll update this article once the consultation has been published.

UPDATE 5th November 2014

As predicted the Government has today set out their plans to eliminate poor mobile coverage that “blights a fifth of the UK“.

Sajid Javid, Culture Secretary, said:

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.

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.

This consultation will complement the work industry is doing and allow the Government to hear from the wider telecoms sector, businesses and the public.

Businesses have been clear about the importance of mobile phones and improved coverage will help deliver jobs and economic security.”

At the time of writing we can’t find a copy of the consultation document (it’s not online yet), although we’re told by the Government that it will run until 26th November 2014. Never the less we known that it will propose infrastructure sharing, reform of existing virtual network operator agreements (i.e. to allow for national roaming) and a new coverage obligation to support the approach, although for now this would be limited to 2G services (mostly just voice calls). This makes sense since applying it to 3G and 4G might damage any incentive for future investment, although getting the balance right may be difficult.


Meanwhile, in a somewhat odd twist, the Government’s already embattled Home Secretary, Theresa May, is said to have privately warned Sajid Javid that the mobile roaming proposals would make it more difficult for GCHQ and Police to snoop on peoples phone calls because it would prevent them accessing “information that is crucial to keeping us safe“.

UPDATE 5th Nov – 10:32am

It took longer than we expected, but the Government’s consultation is now online (here). The document states that up to 21% of UK landmass is affected by partial not-spots. These are areas in which mobile phone coverage is provided by one or two of the UK operators (Vodafone, O2, EE and Three), but not all four.

Partial not-spots affect a greater proportion of the country than complete not spots irrespective of how coverage is measured: 3% of UK premises, 10% of A roads, 16% of B roads and 21% of landmass. Any measures implemented to solve this issue are envisaged as being able to “deliver additional coverage at the earliest point possible“, with the ideal date being pegged as by the end of 2016.

The Capex costs for the Government’s proposal are estimated as £64m-£128m, while Opex sits at £26m-£32m per annum.

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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.
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9 Responses
  1. gerarda says:

    Unfortunately policy once again seem to be driven by erroneous/misleading statistics from Ofcom. We have a French mobile which automatically roams to pick up a signal and even outdoors often fails to pick any operator signal at 2G let alone at 3G. For the claimed 99% coverage would have to be of every village and all but the smallest hamlets and this is clearly not the case.

    If you then take into account the need to have a signal indoors and even more would be left out.

    So this policy will simply result in the notspots being left out whilst government ministers and Ofcom bureaucrat can use their preferred networko whilst driving to their holiday homes

  2. Ignitionnet says:

    ‘Part of this problem will be solved by the Government-backed £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which is working with Arqiva to build new masts at various points around the United Kingdom. But this will only benefit around 60,000 premises’

    £2,500 per premises. Awesome use of taxpayer funds.

  3. NGA for all says:

    Parliament called for a 98% 4G coverage obligation but some Treasury/Ofcom economists thinking of auction yield said 98% coverage but then reduced to 95% by devolved nation. Correcting the latter by using the unspent MIP monies and giving it to the coverage obligation holder might make sense. You could also reduce the annual licence fees for the obligation holder.
    MIP monies unlikely to be ever spent as getting more than 1 operator to agree to share a mast in places where no more than one service provider is needed was always a bit daft.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      The MIP investment programme is already well underway, although precise details of uptake among the main mobile operators and related coverage status remain unclear.

    2. NGA for all says:

      @Mark It has been reported only 2 masts have been installed to date.

    3. Matthew Williams says:

      Even the government can’t waste 150 million on only two masts though sure there will be more put up eventually but the project was meant to be do be by end of this year to middle of next that isn’t going happen anymore.

  4. Adrian says:

    This is crazy, as it all seems to be based on the PM having coverage issues in cornwall. Even I have a sat phone, so why does the PM not have one. We sent him a roaming SIM that does most UK networks in case it is any help, but got no reply.

  5. DTMark says:

    Why didn’t the government “force” BT, Virgin, Hyperoptic etc. to “share infrastructure”?

    Is it because said infrastructure is private property?

    If so, why try to force a different set of companies?

    Couldn’t we shoehorn Sainsbury’s and Tesco into one building while we’re about it?

    The possibilities are endless (rolls eyes)

    1. Raindrops says:

      “Why didn’t the government “force” BT, Virgin, Hyperoptic etc. to “share infrastructure”?”

      No idea they did it with the railways, multi companies sharing the same track.

      “Is it because said infrastructure is private property?”

      Nah its because the crooks that run the country and BT often go from government role to BT role or vice versa, thus ensuring their pockets are always healthy.

      “Couldn’t we shoehorn Sainsbury’s and Tesco into one building while we’re about it?”

      Doesn’t that technically already happen under these one roof, one building things called shopping centres? In fact im pretty sure my local petrol station in the exact same building have Tesco express on one side of the Petrol cashier and a Morrisons (or maybe its a Waitrose local ive never took much notice) on the other side. You can literally walk between the two on the same floor space both behind the same set of doors.

      Of course these are real private businesses so they make it work to make money, organisations like BT just tend to cry to Ofcom, Government or whoever will listen to get their own way rather than make things work.

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