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O2 UK Outage Triggers Mobile Roaming and Compensation Debate

Monday, December 10th, 2018 (9:37 am) - Score 3,484
mobile wireless signal disconnected uk

One positive outcome of last week’s O2 network outage (here) is that it has triggered a debate about whether mobile operators should introduce Automatic Compensation, like broadband ISPs will soon receive. On top of that others have called for more roaming flexibility, so users can use rival networks during downtime.

Let us start the ball rolling with the question of Automatic Compensation. Next year all of the UK market’s major fixed line broadband and phone providers will be introducing a new system to compensate consumers (cash or bill credits) for a total loss of connectivity (i.e. if the outage lasts longer than 2 working days), missed appointments or delayed installs (details).

The system is contentious for a number of reasons, not least of which is its high cost and the inevitable price rises that such a service will bring (some ISPs may already be preparing for it by doing multiple hikes within a single 12 month period). Nevertheless many consumers will be very happy with such a system, particularly as in a lengthy outage it could conceivably pay out far more than the cost of your service rental.

On Friday the consumer magazine Which? began emailing some of their members to propose that the system should also be extended to include Mobile Network Operators (e.g. O2, Three UK, Vodafone, EE and possibly also their MVNO partners).

Which?’s Email to Members

If you were one of them, you probably spent the day quite rightly angry and frustrated. Your mobile phone is such an integral part of being able to live and work, so it is very worrying that one of the world’s biggest mobile networks failed.

We’re calling on O2 and affected providers to put their customers first and ensure no-one is left out of pocket by the widespread outage. We’re also calling on the regulator Ofcom to seriously look into automatic compensation for the mobile phone sector.

In fairness some of this debate is perhaps a touch too premature, not least since major mobile outages tend to be quite rare and there doesn’t appear to be an endemic issue within the industry. Likewise it’s important to stress the difference between network outages and the impact of weak signal coverage, which are not the same thing even though it may sometimes seem like it (a big challenge for any compensation system).

The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, did in fact consider this as part of their related consultation in 2017. At the time they ruled that such issues with mobile operators were naturally very complex to assess (coverage is tricky, especially indoors or underground) and that only less than 1% of people were likely to lose their service for more than 24 hours.

Crucially mobile operators were also found to give better compensation than fixed line providers.

Ofcom’s March 2017 Position on Mobile Compensation

“We considered whether automatic compensation should be paid to mobile consumers who experience delayed repair for loss of service. From the information made available to us, we assessed that the number of consumers likely to lose their mobile service for more than 24 hours is low. Furthermore, compensation payments to mobile consumers are currently greater than those to broadband and landline consumers.

Taking into account our findings, there was insufficient evidence to suggest that consumers are currently receiving inadequate redress for the harm caused when they lose mobile service. We therefore did not consider that requiring mobile providers to pay automatic compensation for delayed repair of mobile loss of service was justified.”

All of this is supported by the fact that mobile operator O2 and some of their Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) partners have already moved to compensate customers in various different ways, although it will be interesting to see whether last week’s situation results in a change of stance from politicians and or Ofcom.

In the meantime the regulator is instead working to further improve mobile network coverage, such as via the new obligations that will come attached to next year’s auction of the 700MHz band (here).

Internal Roaming

Alternatively Grant Shapps (Conservative MP) and his outspoken cross-party British Infrastructure Group (BIG) has proposed a different approach, the idea of “internal roaming.” Essentially they believe mobile users should be allowed to roam freely onto a rival operator’s network, albeit only if their own network is suffering from a major outage.

Shapps claims to have investigated this idea with mobile operators and he told The Telegraph that “there were no real barriers to introducing it, it was just that they didn’t really fancy doing it … [it is] not acceptable to have no backup plan. Ministers should order an immediate investigation into network sharing in emergencies.”

The group claimed that at present foreign visitors get better coverage, as mobile roaming means they are not tied to any provider and can thus use the strongest signal. In fairness it’s not always that simple and sometimes roaming partnerships exist between specific operators, which can still run into problems if one of the default partners is suffering from a major outage when you arrive.

The main challenge here is likely to reflect a mix of commercial competition between operators and the difficulty / cost of developing such a system, which unlike normal roaming would only be introduced during major outages. The other problem with this is that it would suddenly shift a huge capacity burden onto rivals that may not be prepared, thus resulting in a reduced service for all customers, network instability or higher costs for end-users as they adapt.

Meanwhile, in a really bad situation, end-users can already go out and purchase a temporary pay-as-you-go SIM for a rival network, although this is a bit fiddly. As with the proposal for automatic compensation, the question may come down to whether or not such outages are common enough to warrant a major shift in approach. Existing evidence suggests not, but that view may change.

Time for a snap poll..

Should UK mobile operators offer automatic compensation?

  • Yes (73%, 209 Votes)
  • Maybe (15%, 44 Votes)
  • No (11%, 32 Votes)

Total Voters: 285

And another one..

Should UK mobile operators be required to offer internal roaming?

  • Yes (72%, 214 Votes)
  • No (18%, 53 Votes)
  • Maybe (11%, 32 Votes)

Total Voters: 299

NOTE: Poll results are cached and the output will update every few hours (i.e. check back later to see how the vote is going).

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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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11 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast

    So basically, as usual, we want competition (= lots of different networks) when it suits us (gives us choice) and a single network (= automatic roaming) when that suits us too. Perhaps if we grew up . . . That one really is a hopeless cause. Though I suppose we could dream if some of us at least were given the option to vote for it!

    • Avatar SimonR

      After a little bit of homespun half-assed thought, I’d like permanent roaming. Or a central network independent of provider. If automatic roaming were implemented in the same way that you can use pretty much any ATM, the cross charges should balance out.

      It might give incentive for providers to offer better rural coverage, and they could make money providing coverage to blank spots.

      Come what may, in a disaster situation, all networks should be available to all handsets in that area.

    • Avatar Joe

      And who is going to pay the billions to the networks for all their infrastructure?

      I do agree that in a substantive network outage roaming should be automatic @ a regulator imposed cost on the failing network to the other networks

    • Avatar TheFacts

      In a disaster situation the mobile networks limit calls to only essential users.

    • Avatar SimonR

      I haven’t quite thought it through to the end, I’ll grant you.

  2. Avatar Michael V

    1st thing. I don’t agree with National roaming within the four UK MNOs / Mobile Network Operators. It will be a timely & costly process. Look how fast we’ve come with VoLTE / 4G voice networks. The coverage has improved massively across the uk. especially Wales. [As that technology works in a lower frequency band so can go much further distances]

    However, I do agree that compensation should be provided after two days, not three days.

    The back up plan…
    A lot of phones can use voice over WiFi. Operators need to educate the customer & customers should make the effort to get the setting activated.

    People who rely on mobile for work should also have a back up plan. 2nd SIM, phone or even landline.

    In my village I’ve been living with a network fault since September, incredibly frustrating but my MNO is having issues fixing it.
    These problems shouldn’t happen, but they do. I really hope that customers spend more time learning what their phones can do.

    • Avatar Kekkle

      “People who rely on mobile for work should also have a back up plan. 2nd SIM, phone or even landline.”

      This is key not just for mobile for also fixed line consumers. So many people who RELY on their internet connection for medical reasons, or work purposes or taking payments etc. But then have zero backup option, then expect the provider to compensate them for loss of earnings or loss of accessibility to whatever they were trying to do.

      People really should take some responsibility for anything that they RELY on, and not expect their £10-£20 data connection to be available 100% of the time.

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore


      Spot on, I’m on O2 and was affected, I simply got out my emergency EE SIM, put £5 credit on it and was back in business in minutes. As you say, people need to take responsibility themselves.

  3. Avatar dave

    While I have not yet fully understood which component(s) of O2’s network were affected by the expired certificates which were the root cause of the recent disaster, national roaming would almost certainly not have helped in this or other similar scenarios.

    National roaming should be seen a possible solution to coverage blackspots but nothing more. When roaming on another network various parts of your home networks core still need to be reachable and functional in order for you to be provided service.

    At the very least the visited network has to be able to communicate with the home network in order to verify that your SIM card should be provided with service. If your home networks HLR is not functioning correctly, you are not going to be allowed on any roaming network.

    Very few operators take advantage of LBO (local break out) for data and roaming users data is almost always without exception routed via the home network, so if data is not working correctly on the home network it is unlikely to be working on any roaming network either.

    If your home networks SMSC (SMS service centre) isn’t working correctly, you will not have reliable sending or receiving of SMS no matter which network you roam on.

    Voice is also often routed via the home network, particularly in the case of prepaid sims as this allows the home network complete control of call-flow in scenarios which may otherwise cause your balance to go negative. Like with data and SMS, if voice isn’t working correctly and calls are routed via your home network, they are not going to work.

    Even if calls, data and SMS are working correctly, you will be out of luck if there is an outage of your home networks billing systems and you are a pre-paid customer as your calls, texts and data usage will likely not be authorised. Some networks do configure their MSC’s (mobile switching centres) to allow activity (calls, texts, data) to proceed if the billing system is down in order to not inconvenience customers (they could potentially process billing after the fact anyway) however whether this would succeed while roaming is another matter.

    (Lot’s of use of the words likely, unlikely, possibly, etc in the above as EXACTLY what happens is down to the unique configuration of both the home and visited networks)

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Also, having all I2 customers roam onto the other three networks would probably cause them to fail too as I doubt any have sufficient spare capacity to absorb that sort of instant increase in load.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Not I2, O2 !

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