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90 Cross-Party MPs Call for Better UK Mobile Cover and National Roaming

Saturday, October 29th, 2016 (8:23 am) - Score 911
wireless mobile mast

A new report from the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), which was setup by Grant Shapps (Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield), has brought together 90 cross-party Members of Parliament in order to demand better UK mobile coverage and a limited national roaming agreement.

At present most of the United Kingdom’s primary Mobile Network Operators (Three UK, Vodafone, O2 and EE) are aiming to deliver 98% population coverage of 4G (LTE) based mobile broadband technology by the end of 2017 and one (EE) has effectively already achieved that goal. Most operators also claim to have already delivered 99%+ coverage of 2G and 3G services.

However for many people the reality is that mobile coverage remains patchy and unreliable, which is partly due to the fact that geographic (landmass) coverage is still fairly poor and also because Ofcom’s coverage estimates are often more optimistic than even those figures being supplied by mobile operators’ themselves.

Back in December 2014 the Government reached a new £5bn legally binding agreement with all of the major mobile operators, which committed them to extending their geographic network coverage (voice and text) of the United Kingdom to 90% by the end of 2017 (falling to 85% for Mobile Broadband [3G / 4G] data coverage).

However today’s new report – ‘Mobile Coverage: A Good Call for Britain?‘ – claims that the mobile network operators are “unlikely to achieve the [geographic coverage] targets” and even if they do then coverage related issues may continue to be a problem unless the Government takes more action.

Grant Shapps MP said:

“Although the British mobile communications sector has flourished through sustained private sector investment, comparing favourably with EU markets in terms of service costs and technological advances, visitors to Britain have consistently enjoyed better and broader mobile coverage. Whereas British consumers remain stuck with a single provider, international SIM cards roam between different networks. This is a bad call for connectivity in Britain.

Instead, this report takes a second look at the costs and benefits of national roaming, and urges the Government to reconsider this approach on a smaller scale, in areas severely affected by ‘not spots’. In light of Ofcom recently fining Vodafone £4.6 million for breaching consumer protection rules, the treatment of mobile consumers requires greater scrutiny.

This BIG report also urges the passage of the Digital Economy Bill, to kick start much-needed reforms to the Electronic Communications Code and to provide Ofcom with the ability to ensure that mobile operators become accountable to consumers. Britain is yet to achieve mobile coverage for all. The Government must rethink which policies are the best call for Britain.”

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that BT’s recent financial results included an update on EE’s geographic 4G network coverage, which currently sits at about 70% (the other operators are nearly at this level too). In that update it was reported that EE’s geographic coverage should grow to reach 92% by September 2017 and then 95% by the end of December 2020.

EE’s rivals haven’t been as clear about their expectations for geographic coverage, but at the very least they have committed to deliver the 90% target by the end of 2017. As such it may perhaps be a bit premature to reconsider reviving the demand for national roaming, at least until we’ve seen if the MNOs can deliver and what impact that has.

Just to be clear, a national roaming policy would focus on improving mobile coverage by forcing operators in mostly rural locations to adopt greater sharing of key infrastructure, such as masts (details). Suffice to say that the big network operators were bitterly opposed to this, not least since it would effectively give a free ride to those that haven’t invested as much in order to improve rural mobile coverage (some warned that this could also discourage future investment). In the end the idea was abandoned in favour of the aforementioned £5bn agreement.

Sadly some big obstacles remain. In particular the failure of the Government’s earlier £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) demonstrated that getting planning permission for new masts in sensitive rural areas, as well as securing related access to private land and supplying those masts with the necessary power / network capacity is far from easy (here).

The new Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 contains vital revisions to update the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and remove barriers, such as by making it easier and cheaper to install such infrastructure on private land. However land owners remain less than keen on the idea and have repeatedly tried to block some of the key measures (here).

In the end many of the recommendations being made in today’s report reflect changes that are already in the process of happening, although some (e.g. making it cheaper / easier to access private land and national roaming) are a lot easier to say than they are to actually deliver.

Conclusions and recommendations

1. There were 39.5 million 4G mobile subscriptions in the UK at the end of 2015.77 However, the average proportion of premises with 4G cover provided by all four MNOs was just 66.25%.78 The British mobile communications market may compare favourably with EU competitors, but services must be improved for consumers and costs should be reduced within the sector. The £5 billion investment agreement between the Government and mobile communications industry still has a year left to provide better mobile infrastructure and 90% mobile voice coverage in geographic locations across the UK. However, this report has found that the lack of progress by the sector in improving mobile voice and internet coverage remains just as troubling as in 2014. The Digital Economy Bill proposes that Ofcom should be able to fine mobile operators that have not reached the targets of this £5 billion investment agreement. Therefore, BIG calls on the Government to request an update in December 2016 from the four mobile operators on their progress towards achieving these goals. The British public deserve to be assured that this agreement was a good call.

2. BIG took a second look at national roaming, one of the key policy options considered in the DCMS consultation of November 2014. An assessment of the costs, consisting primarily of technical difficulties, cost-sharing issues and security concerns, was compared with the relative benefits of national roaming. These included the potential creation of market competition in the mobiles sector, and an increase in consumer choice. Instead, BIG concluded that a compromise would be better for both consumers and mobile operators. This would take the form of ‘macro not spot’ roaming. Operators would share networks, enabling mobiles to roam, but only in areas severely affected by ‘not spots’. By targeting a system of ‘macro not spot’ roaming in areas with poor signal, the Government could encourage competition between mobile operators and allow consumers to finally access decent mobile coverage. Therefore, BIG recommends that the DCMS undertake an impact assessment of ‘macro not spot’ roaming, to determine the feasibility of implementing this policy in rural areas.

3. Mobile consumers also need better protection. Unlike other regular household expenditures, such as utilities, mobile contracts remain extremely complex and ambiguous. 38% of mobile users surveyed by Ofcom in 2016 reported experiencing ‘major’ difficulties when switching provider. If a mobile user experiences poor coverage, there are often very limited grounds for terminating their contract free of charge. Instead, BIG recommends that Ofcom establishes a Minimum Service Obligation for mobile operators to fulfil. Otherwise, consumers should be eligible to terminate mobile contracts free of charge. This consumer protection measure must also be included as a provision of the Digital Economy Bill.

4. Finally, the passage of the Digital Economy Bill must be prioritised by the Government. The Bill includes provisions to reform the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and bring Britain’s regulatory framework for mobile communications into the twenty-first century. Demand for the highest quality of mobile data is only increasing, and the ECC was first implemented before the introduction of 2G services. The reform of wayleave valuation would save significant mobile operator costs, which could instead be allocated towards the reduction of mobile ‘not spots’ across the country. Finally, the proposals to allow Ofcom to fine mobile operators that do not meet the targets laid out in the £5 billion investment agreement would ensure accountability in our mobile communications sector. The Digital Economy Bill represents a forward-thinking vision for a connected, inclusive Britain. Now, the Government must make the right call to achieve this.

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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.
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26 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast

    Brits talk about it . . . again. That’s news? I know; there wouldn’t be any, otherwise.

    Note to MPs: you privatised utilities because they were no good with the State running them, basically because you interfered too much. Haven’t you learned anything? We know the Devil makes work for idle hands, but do you have to give him such a big helping hand every time?

  2. Avatar FibreFred

    I wonder how much of the report is factually and technically correct? I know the last report wasn’t…..

    Just to think we pay these guys to do this 🙁

    • Avatar TheFacts

      As in ‘On average, British mobile users can only access 4G coverage 53% of the time’

      Switched off every afternoon?

  3. Avatar New_Londoner

    The so-called “British Infrastructure Group” is in reality a Grant Shapos MP. It is not a real group in any sense of the word, just a platform for Grant to pontificate, mainly on matters he doesn’t really understand- scary to think he used to be a tech consultant!

    The only surprise here is that he managed to hoodwink so many MPs to sign another report after the fiasco surrounding his last one.

    • Avatar wireless pacman

      Scary, but not that unusual for tech consultants! 🙂

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      The extent of Grant Shapps’ education appears to be an HND in business and finance. I’m not sure he was ever a professional technical consultant, but he had a sting of business websites, a whole lot of which were apparently blacklisted by Google due to web site copyright infringement issues.

      Then there was the infamous second job and pseudonym issue which he initially denied. Then he also resigned a a minister following allegations that he’d ignored allegations of bullying (by others) whilst he was part co-chairman.

      In all, a chequered career and he is most certainly not a technical expert in any shape or form.

  4. Avatar gerarda

    99% 3G coverage for most operators?? Only if you count climbing to the top of the nearest tree and waving your phone around until it picks up a 1 bar signal/

    • Avatar Matt

      I was thinking that as well I thought Vodafone had only about 94-95% on 3G and that’s being kond.

    • Avatar 3G Infinity

      For EE, they have yet to catch up will all the Orange not-spots, many of which have existed for years and in some cases that’s 20 years of no 3G or 2G calling let alone data.

    • Avatar TWKND

      Pretty sure there are areas of every network (except maybe 3) that have been forgotten about for years. For example my local town is still served by a single GPRS microcell for O2 and Vodafone.

  5. Avatar tonyp

    I wonder how much ‘bad signal’ is due to cell congestion rather than weak signal? When you see the number of mobile devices in use everywhere, capacity may be an issue? The number of bars shouldn’t vary due to signal strength if stationary. Possibly automatic cell switching may occur if a cell is congested?

    Ironically I get pretty reliable 4G at home (which is in an AONB) but when in my nearby town I rarely get a good data connection. That said, a trip to central London last week showed good, reliable 4G coverage everywhere I went.

  6. Avatar ohdear

    more coverage more power always worrying about eyeballs boiling due to microwave rf power

  7. Avatar 125us

    Roaming would not really help – it would encourage operators to wait for the others to build instead of building out themselves. Better to set targets for individual operators. It also creates the possibility of cascade failure; one network goes down and all the devices switch to another network, overloading that one and bringing them all down in turn.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @125us
      Your points are well made, highlight the lack of any meaningful analysis by Grant Shapps MP yet again! Perhaps the Speaker should bar MPs from publishing reports on behalf of groups like this unless the group is officially registered with Parliament as an All Party Parliamentary Group. It wouldn’t guarantee the quality of the report but it would stop individual MPs from inventing organisations as a tool for self-publicity.

    • Avatar gerarda

      @new_londoner Maybe Parliament should stop regulated industries spinning the truth for their own self-publicity and self-interest?

      I see BIG as merely a counterweight for all the misleading statements and lobbying done by BT over the last 10-15 years.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Gerarda
      There is no “BIG”, it’s just another pseudonym for Grant Shapps MP. This report, just like his last one, uses data that is out of date, is technically and economically illiterate. What is worse, our taxes are paying him to produce this nonsense!

    • Avatar gerarda

      @New Londoner – however wrong BIG may be if the reports it produces help to stop the government swallowing BT’s spin as if it were truth as it has done for the last 15 years then that can only be for the better.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Gerarda
      Some observations:
      1. This story isn’t about BT
      2. The report had less signatures than the first (down around 25%), clearly other MPs are wising up
      3. Too many MPs sign reports like this without any clue what has been written, indeed in some cases they don’t even know that they have “supported” it, the decision coming from their office without their involvement- a very odd system!
      4. Why hide the report behind the name of a basically fictitious organisation? Attributing it to an organisation nobody has heard of does not add gravitas, it does pose questions about the credibility of the real author though
      5. Why are we paying an MP to run his own vanity publishing project?

    • Avatar gerarda

      @new londoner

      BT owns EE.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Gerarda
      Only since earlier this year, this is not a BT story!

      As far as coverage is concerned, I know EE has the greatest coverage, needs to continue to expand rapidly in order to meet its contractual obligations for the Emergency Services contract. Having moved recently from Three to EE, I’ve found both the signal strength and coverage much better, so benefit from this personally.

      But to repeat, this is not a BT story, it’s about Grant Shapps’ rather strange views of the UK mobile industry. Quite why he continues to author reports like this that demonstrate his lack complete of understanding of both technology and economics is beyond me.

    • Avatar gerarda

      If it wasnt a story that might affect BT you would not be on here commenting on it.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Gerarda
      That’s clearly not the case, as you can see from my comments above. You, on the other hand, managed to see a BT angle when there wasn’t one!

  8. Avatar bob

    Maybe BT should be forced to sell up EE so that it can become and open network allowing O2, Vodafone and Three to roam on EE. But EE not allowed to sell direct to customers.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Why would they do that?

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Bob
      This is no less logical than the proposal from Ofcom that the UK market should support a third infrastructure provider whilst simultaneously keeping broadband pricing as low as possible through ISP competition! It’s inability to choose between two mutually exclusive options is breathtaking!

  9. Avatar Mark

    Where we are – we can get fast 4G but no voice on any mobile network. We used to be able to get a patchy O2 service but even that doesn’t work well enough to use now and doesn’t work at all in the summer months, dropping all calls within seconds.

    “Roaming” won’t bring the transmitters any nearer nor make the O2 one less congested. Potentially, the opposite.

    The mere mention of it (the policy) could however put a stop to anyone rolling out any more of them. Why would you pay if someone else might pay?

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