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Ofcom Proposes Options to Improve UK Mobile Network Coverage

Friday, September 14th, 2018 (1:00 pm) - Score 1,359
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Ofcom has today published the technical advice that they recently submitted to Government, which proposes a number of ways in which near universal UK Mobile (3G, 4G, 5G) coverage might be achieved (public subsidy, rural wholesale access etc.), beyond what will be established via their forthcoming auction of the 700MHz band.

The 700MHz band (formerly used for Digital Terrestrial TV services) is aimed more at future ultrafast 5G mobile data (broadband) services and is due to be auctioned off by Ofcom in 2019. The band will also come attached to a much stricter coverage obligation than we’ve seen before (details), which will require both better indoor reception and at least two operators must commit to reach 92% of the UK land area with good reception.

However Ofcom notes that value of the aforementioned spectrum “constrains our ability to go further with these obligations” (e.g. attaching an overly strict obligation might discourage operators’ from bidding). On top of that they “do not believe that these obligations can fix the coverage problem in its entirety.”

Admittedly EE already aims to cover 95% of the UK’s landmass with their 4G network by the end of December 2020 (currently 91%), but they’re only one operator (we don’t all want to be EE customers) and that would still leave plenty of so-called “notspots” with very poor or no signal.

Both the Government and Ofcom have thus been discussing how something close to universal mobile coverage might be achieved in the future (here). In keeping with that the regulator has proposed a number of solutions to the Government and they’ve today published those options for public consumption.

Ofcom’s Technical Advice for Better Mobile Coverage

1) Use public subsidy to pay for new coverage roll out:
This is most likely to be an effective tool for covering total not spots (areas where no operators are currently present). The cost of covering total not spots will vary, depending on their location. While it is not possible to be certain of the costs, we estimate that addressing all total not spots would cost £3-6bn, once the 700MHz coverage obligations are factored in.

Direct subsidy is less likely to be an appropriate means of tackling partial not spots as funding operators to overbuild their competitors’ networks could create distortions to competition.

2) Rural wholesale access (otherwise known as roaming):
This would involve operators allowing customers to roam onto one another’s networks in rural areas. It could improve coverage by 2-3 percentage points for the holders of the 700 MHz coverage obligations and by 5-10 percentage for the other operators. Taken together with our proposed coverage obligations it could result in customers of all four operators getting coverage in around 90% of the UK.

It introduces investment risks and consumer experience issues that could be mitigated to a degree. The surest way to introduce a rural wholesale access arrangement would be with the co-operation of operators. In the past, such arrangements have been strongly resisted by most mobile operators on the basis that the case to impose them is unsustainable, and we expect they will continue to take that position.

3) Infrastructure sharing:
Mobile operators have extensive infrastructure sharing arrangements that allow them to share the costs of deploying coverage. Ofcom is considering ways in which we can facilitate further sharing.

4) Planning reform and other cost reduction measures:
There are a range of measures the UK and devolved Governments could take to reduce the costs of building and operating mobile masts, and thereby facilitate coverage rollout. We believe the most useful potential measures include aligning the planning regime to give mobile operators the same compulsory purchase rights as other utilities, and extending the business rates relief recently granted for fibre deployment to mobile infrastructure.

Some of the ideas touted for no.3 and 4 above already appear to be in-development as part of the Government’s new Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (here), although we’d be surprised if they extended the business rates holiday on fibre to include mobile networks. Governments prefer to protect or raise business rates and even the current relief for fibre doesn’t look like it will be extended beyond 2022, which is despite the 2033 goal for universal coverage.

Meanwhile past attempts to subsidise better mobile coverage (no.1) have tended to result in mixed success (e.g. the £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project that only achieved a small amount of what it hoped to deliver), although some of the problems in that area stemmed from issues that could be resolved via planning reform etc.

Universal mobile coverage (geographic) is perhaps unrealistic, although we should still be able to get much closer to that than what is currently planned for via the 700MHz band.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. Matthew

    Quite agree 100% Geographic Mobile Coverage is a big big ask probably a fair bit of the last 5% no one even lives in. I always thought the 95% EE Geographic Coverage was a very impressive target.

    Guessing the coverage obligation lots will be like the One O2 brought in the 800MHz auction.

    Guess it makes perfect sense on EE’s side to bid for one of those as they will likely be around that mark anyway by time of auction.

  2. Tim

    They shouldn’t use land area to measure coverage.

    It should be a percentage of all buildings and percentage of road network.

    • wireless pacman

      And fields where people might roam, and lakes where people might sail, and hills where people might climb…

  3. S Wakeman

    I don’t get the public subsidy thing. Okay, so Ofcom recognises there is value in increasing the coverage to areas that are not as financially viable or incentivised but at the same time doesn’t have the balls to attach a particularly tough coverage requirement to spectrum for fear of disincentivising bidding.

    What it boils down to is that mobile telecoms is a private company driven capitalistic system. So why on earth should any public money be put forward to it? Will the public investment have to be returned when the winning bidder achieves a profit threshold? Doubt it. These companies have revenue that is measured in billions. They cheat tax (Vodafone prime example) they shouldn’t be given a penny of public money to extend their network coverage. Ofcom just need to grow a pair and stop being so pathetically toothless.

    These telecoms companies are ruthless profit making sharks, they’re not fluffy little rabbits that need cuddling and looking after. If it’s a privatised market then let it be that and seek out other means of cultivating expansion.

  4. Michael V

    I truly believe that Roaming between all four operators is a bad idea. It will cause end user issues, cost far too much & take years to complete. There needs to be re-freshed agreements to share sites, building masts, sharing infrastructure. Vodafone & O2 are still sharing, like the new 20 meter mast in the centre of my village that I really do welcome. EE & Three still share. That’s the best way forward. I’ve seen a huge improvement with Three’s coverage around Wales since their ‘Supervoice’ / VoLTE network launched in 2015 on the 800mhz band.

    • Guy Cashmore

      Try spending some time here on my farm in West Devon and you might not agree. At home and in every direction to the west we have O2/Voda coverage only, but in every direction east its EE/3 only. No option but to own two mobile phones, but which number do I give people who want to contact me? Been like this for 20+ years and absolutely no sign of it getting resolved.

    • Michael V

      @Guy . All MNOs offer WiFi calling. Have you given that a go for when at home? I’ve not been to Devon, I can only give my thoughts on Wales. Mostly South & Mid-West.
      Three offer WiFi calling on all their phones, don’t know about Vodafone/O2.

  5. TheRealFuzzyDunlop

    @Guy

    https://anywheresim.com

    https://pebblenetwork.ltd.uk

    Or have you considered using a foreign sim which would allow for UK roaming. I have read posts on UK Sailing forums where people have said that a SIM card from an Isle of Man based mobile network allows for UK roaming. YMMV. Try https://www.manxtelecom.com/personal/mobile there may be others.

    • Michael V

      @fuzzy. Pebble seems interesting. I was wondering the name of that latest MVNO that uses multiple MNOs – Anywhere! That’s useful.
      @Guy
      It can’t be easy living in a place with no service. With those MVNOs suggested & WiFi calling, hope you find something that works.

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