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BT Shun Rural Mobile Roaming Plan from Three UK, O2 and Vodafone

Monday, Mar 18th, 2019 (3:15 pm) - Score 13,613

Telecoms giant BT (EE) has rejected an industry proposal from rival operators Three UK, Vodafone and O2 that would have aimed to improve national 4G network coverage via “rural roaming,” where signals in remote areas could roam onto whatever alternative network was available (like EU roaming).

At present the Government wants to see mobile networks achieve 95% geographic coverage of the UK by 2022 (here), ideally via 4G or faster network technology (their manifesto commitment wasn’t specific). The difficulty stems from the fact that not all mobile network operators are currently expected to achieve that level of coverage (except for EE).

According to Ofcom’s most recent Connected Nations 2018 report, geographic 4G (LTE) network coverage from all operators is 97% in urban locations but sadly this falls to only 62% in rural areas. The overall outdoor geographic coverage of 4G services across the UK is still painfully low at 66% (up from 43% a year earlier) from all four mobile operators or 91% from at least one operator (EE).

The idea of solving this via a roaming agreement, even if only applicable to UK rural areas, is nothing new and has cropped up multiple times over the past few years in one form of another. Last autumn Ofcom proposed it again (Rural Wholesale Access) and the regulator suggested that it could “improve coverage by 2-3 percentage points for the holders of the 700MHz coverage obligations and by 5-10 percentage for the other operators” (i.e. taking geographic coverage from all operators to about 90% today).

NOTE: The 700MHz band is more intended to support 5G services and is due to be auctioned later in 2019 (here).

Naturally EE, which currently has better geographic coverage than their rivals, isn’t terribly keen on this idea. The operator may well view it as giving a free ride to rivals that haven’t made the same level of investment (excluding ESN related masts as those can be shared), while at the same time also removing any limited advantage they may get from it themselves and stifling the attraction of making future such investments (extending rural coverage isn’t exactly very profitable).

As Ofcom said last year:

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.

Suffice to say that we weren’t surprised when The Times reported over the weekend that BT had refused to take part in the rural roaming proposal from their rivals. Meanwhile O2, Vodafone and Three UK couldn’t see the plan progressing without support from BT, which would of course mean they’d alternatively have to build a lot of extra infrastructure in areas where a signal from EE was already present.

Instead BT remains supportive of Ofcom’s forthcoming auction for the 5G friendly 700MHz radio spectrum band, which includes new coverage obligations (here). This should extend outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area and provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas, among other things.

Ofcom has recognised that it will take “significant investment” to meet the new obligations and so they’re proposing to offer the two coverage obligations as “coverage lots” alongside and separate from spectrum lots in the auction. Each coverage lot would carry an associated discount, up to a maximum set by Ofcom, on the price of spectrum (i.e. a maximum discount in the range £300m-£400m for each obligation).

Sadly this still leaves the problem of getting from 90% to 95% coverage across all operators, although as we said earlier the Government’s manifesto doesn’t specifically mention 2G, 3G, 4G or even 5G technology for this target in the text and it’s easy to see why.

We have already invested heavily to create the widest 4G coverage in the UK, and we are keen to collaborate with government and industry to extend rural coverage into areas where there is none today,” said BT.

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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32 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Joe says:

    Rural roaming in the last ‘X’% needs to be imposed by regulation – and a stiff premium on calls for other telcos to stop them freeloading.

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      The Government has tried and failed to force a similar approach before. It’s highly contentious for various reasons and could be counter-productive to investment in future upgrades. You’d probably create more unity in opposition to a legislative approach.

    2. Avatar photo NGA for all says:

      Parliament tried in 2012 with 98% indoor premises target for 4G, but this was undermined by Ofcom with its 98% but 95% by devolved administration implementation. The measurement process did nothing for rural spreading as it did from the most to least populous areas.

      Ofcom’s role as spectrum pimp for HMT trumps any interest it has in getting services working in rural. As Ofcom games the auction process, BT is then given permission if not inspiration to do the same in its bid for subsidies.

    3. Avatar photo Mike says:

      This isn’t a communist country…yet.

    4. Avatar photo Joe says:

      The Gov didn’t try and fail it didn’t force it through legally – (EU rules etc.)

      Mike@ No different than mandated roaming in the EU/abroad.

      We’re talking about the last ‘x’ percent not general roaming.

  2. Avatar photo chris conder says:

    Of course openreach won’t allow roaming, they have spent the last 10 years building out to certain masts (encouraging villages on the way to join their community build and benefit bt scheme to pay for it, together with public funding) so why should they share their toys?
    Soon BT will have a monopoly on mobile too if we aren’t careful. Once they corner the content market as well then openreach will be handed back to ofcom to sort out. It is all part of the superfarce.

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Fixed line infrastructure under Openreach is a different kettle of fish and it doesn’t seem like EE will ever have a monopoly in mobile infrastructure (the operators aren’t that far apart). Meanwhile the forthcoming 5G auctions may further reduce their spectrum holdings as a proportion vs rivals.

    2. Avatar photo Alex says:

      What has Openreach got to do with mobile roaming?!

    3. Avatar photo Martin Pitt - Aquiss says:

      Most Excellent member of the Empire, you preach your ideological wise words, but surely you know the difference between Openreach and EE?

    4. Avatar photo TheFacts says:

      Usual CC lack of knowledge, surprised snake oil salesman not mentioned.

    5. Avatar photo A_Builder says:


      I mused about this and what level of truth there was in it.

      As a BT shareholder I really wish it was true – or had been true for years. But I can from my personal experience recount huge numbers of villages and hamlets passed through by trunk fibre without there being any hand off point whosoever.

      This was certainly case up to quite recently.

      I think you need to understand the mentality of silos that exists in OR. Trunk fibre was one silo. Leased is another silo. Consumer provision was in it own bunker complex. Up until Fibre First Trunk wasn’t going to do anything to help Consumer or what we are talking about here Leased helping Consumer (OK I have over simplified it a bit). Totally different CAPEX and OPEX pots. Very silly non joined up thinking but that is the way it was.

      I totally agree that adding hand off points (OK this really means extra fibres) when running a new route costs peanuts as we all know the real cost is in the civils blowing extra fibres or adding fibres to the bundles is generally trivial. What I hear someone pupping up to talk about load on the poles……….

      It would be nice if BT did wholesale the EE fibre ethernet network – might earn some ROI for those long suffering shareholders.

      Strangely as a shareholder I don’t see OFCOM proposal as that much of an issue. Provided that is the revenue split is down to the level of investment. TBH what I do see is that this was a bit of a game to get cheaper access to the backhaul. As between OR and EE there is a very big network. From what I remember the EE network is kept quite separate from the main OR trunk and leased network? Anyone with better knowledge than me??

    6. Avatar photo AnotherTim says:

      @A_Builder, I agree with your point about trunk fibres passing hamlets without any local handoff points. There are bundles of trunk fibres running in nice clear ducts 20 metres from my house, but the nearest agg node is 11 miles away.
      To my mind BDUK should give priority to providing accessible backhaul to area that don’t have any. Once backhaul is available just which areas are commercially viable for altnets (or even BT) could look quite different.
      Every company building their own infrastructure, whether for fixed line or cell towers, is just stupid IMO. We don’t do that with other utilities.

    7. Avatar photo A_Builder says:

      My point, although badly expressed, was that as a shareholder I wilsh OR had put more fibre and hand off points in so that local connectivity would not be the total nightmare.

      This way OR would have earned to £ROI + more from selling the backhual.

      The Fibre just should have been put in unlight and the light when the demand was there for a service either from OR Consumer or Leased or from B4RN type self builders.

      The ridiculous thing is that in many places OR are having to spend hard cash redoing what they resisted doing 10 years ago.

  3. Avatar photo Chris says:

    Given that O2/Vodafone have a mast sharing agreement, and are on their way to filling out their entire 2G footprint with 4G (unlike 3G), as well as the fact that the masts built by EE for ESN will need to be open accces, surely we’re well on our way to solving most of the problems above?

  4. Avatar photo Guy Cashmore says:

    Can’t come soon enough, one half of my parish has EE and Three coverage only, the other half has O2 and Vodafone only, most locals are forced to have two mobile phones (or a dual sim) apart from the cost it still means if you want to contact someone its usually necessary to try two numbers.

    Typical BT blocking, OFCOM needs to get a lot tougher on BT.

    1. Avatar photo Mark says:

      Your lucky the locals think like that, were told here stay with a land-line masts are dangerous, I do do believe we will in a few years be one of the last populated area of the Cotswolds without mobile, it’s amazing how they been able to bring on the council, landowners etc to reject any attempts to provide a mast to the town.

    2. Avatar photo Guy Cashmore says:


      How do the emergency services operate?

  5. Avatar photo George says:

    Well, this is a pretty poor decision, by BT (EE). Living in a largely rural county (Cumbria), I know very well the problem connecting. A wider network would also have enhanced safety in a region of dangerous roads, mountains and forests, where people *frequently* get into trouble.

    1. Avatar photo CarlT says:

      Not BT’s problem. Private sector, publicly listed company with a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders.

    2. Avatar photo FibreFred says:

      Doesnt sound much like a wider network. Just more choice of providers

  6. Avatar photo FibreFred says:

    Gotta laugh at rival telcos

    “Can we use all of your masts? In return you can use the few we have now and we won’t bother building anymore either, we’ll let you do it” 🙂

    Jog on

  7. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Guy Cashmore, there is a Tetra mast about 2 and half miles away, with Tetra you use the police car or similar radio as a repeater, they don’t really get coverage , I believe there are still Tetra blackspots.

  8. Avatar photo CJ says:

    Must also remember that access to full EE 4G coverage requires a fairly recent and well-spec’d phone. Many older/cheaper devices, especially Android, do not support EE 4G calling and hence cannot access their 800MHz signal.

    I wonder what proportion of the people struggling with EE coverage really just need a better phone?

    1. Avatar photo Brian says:

      Many people have VoLTE phones, but unless it’s supplied by the operator and on the right contract, the operator is likely to be block it from using VoLTE. Rural coverage is seen as a premium product.

  9. Avatar photo Michael V says:

    Rural roaming would be a massive mistake, it’s the most stupid thing ofcom has come out with. It’s time consuming & costly. Again, there would being no reason to actually provide coverage there if an operator can offload customers onto someone else’s network. We know O2 & Vodafone share infrastructure as does Three & EE. I think it would make more sense for all four of them to build sites to share. So all of them would have VoLTE coverage at least. & Space to add more cells. Whatever happens, we really need to get rural locations covered.

    1. Avatar photo AnotherTim says:

      I don’t understand why you think rural roaming is time consuming & costly? Can you explain? Why time consuming, and costly to who?

    2. Avatar photo Michael V says:

      @AnotherTim. It will cost the Operators money to set up. It will cost the Operators money for customers to use anothers operators network. They will charge for each connection. that takes away money to actually invest in building their own infrastructure. All this will take time to set up. There’s even a possibility that prices could increase because of it.

    3. Avatar photo AnotherTim says:

      @MichaelV, I can’t believe that it would cost more to pay for use of another network than it would to build more masts – after all they haven’t built mast so far as it isn’t cost effective. Roaming is already set up for lots of networks (e.g. overseas visitors roam without problems). As I see it roaming is more of a problem for lawyers and accountants than for the technology.

    4. Avatar photo Mark says:

      What like the Mobile infrastructure project was supposed too? Planning and objections put paid to that.

  10. Avatar photo Phil says:

    “Must also remember that access to full EE 4G coverage requires a fairly recent and well-spec’d phone. Many older/cheaper devices, especially Android, do not support EE 4G calling and hence cannot access their 800MHz signal.”

    Also they exclude anyone on a Pay-as-you-go from this 800MHz signal, who also don’t get Wi-Fi calling which would help in no/little coverage homes.

    “Instead BT remains supportive of Ofcom’s forthcoming auction for the 5G friendly 700MHz radio spectrum band”

    Which no one can receive on their mobiles, and it will be many years before a decent percentage of people have 5G able phones. Coverage figures should not just include where the signal propagates, but include how many people as a percentage can make use of it. In EEs case many customers are excluded from their 800MHz spectrum, so coverage figures are meaningless. There may be 100% coverage of 800MHz in a rural area, but only a fraction of EE customers will be able to use it, the rest get “Emergency calls only”.

    1. Avatar photo Michael V says:

      @Phil. I went to Mid west Wales last April. I’m on Three & have a Supervoice/VoLTE supported phone. My friend is on EE PAYG. I saw a lot of VoLTE coverage with Three & always had signal when travelling around. And we drove for quite some miles. However my friend didn’t have VoLTE coverage as he’s on PAYG, EE give contract customers priority. His coverage experience suffered because of it. This is still a massive problem from Vodafone & EE. I don’t see operators educating customers either. So there’s a lot of rural villagers who think there’s no coverage from operators when in reality there is. Also both our phones were bought directly from our Operator’s stores so have support for all LTE frequency bands.

  11. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Not all areas are not cost effective, we’re probably down to the last percentage of areas and people who don’t want masts, my area has tried for twenty years so they thought it was cost effective here, we’re stuck in a loop going nowhere.

Comments are closed

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