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Mast Sharing or Rural Roaming – Solving UK Rural 4G Mobile Coverage

Monday, April 1st, 2019 (10:28 am) - Score 4,308

The Country Land and Business Association, which represents 30,000+ landowners (farmers and businesses) across England and Wales, has said that “forcing mobile operators to adopt rural roaming” may be the only way to deliver significantly better 4G coverage in rural areas. But operators now favour a barter system of mast sharing.

The idea of Rural Roaming is simple enough. Essentially, whenever you pass into a rural area where your mobile operator can’t get a service then the signal would be allowed to roam onto another operator’s network (assuming the signal is strong enough and present). This approach is similar to when you go abroad and your mobile signal can roam on to different networks.

In theory this could produce a significant improvement in service coverage and that’s important because, according to Ofcom, geographic 4G (mobile broadband) coverage from all UK operators is currently 97% in urban locations but only 62% in rural areas. The overall outdoor geographic coverage of 4G is 66% (up from 43% a year earlier) from all four operators or 91% from just EE (BT).

All of this presents a problem for EE, which has invested a lot to build a modest advantage in rural coverage. The operator has so far shunned a pure rural roaming model (here) because they may view it as giving a free ride to rivals that haven’t made the same investment (excluding ESN masts as those can be shared), not to mention stifling the attraction of future investments (extending rural cover isn’t very profitable).

Mark Bridgeman, CLA Deputy President, said:

“Since 2002 the CLA has been campaigning for a universal pledge on digital connectivity and we’re delighted to finally see this on broadband. While we need to wait to see how this is met, great strides have been taken towards unlocking the potential of the rural economy.

We need to learn the lessons from the successes with broadband where government and stakeholder consensus, as well as leadership by the regulator, achieved real wins for those who live or work in the countryside. There is no reason why a similar approach should not be applied to rural 4G, starting with forcing mobile operators to adopt rural roaming.

The CLA is ready to work with operators and Ofcom to work on the tangible steps which need to be taken to ending the urban-rural digital divide.”

Meanwhile the Government wants to see mobile networks achieve 95% geographic coverage of the UK by 2022 (here), although their manifesto commitment wasn’t specific about whether this meant 4G. At the same time Ofcom’s plan to auction off the 700MHz band later this year includes a new obligation (here), which requires two operators to deliver geographic coverage of 90% but this is more intended for future 5G services and those will take years to deploy.

Despite these issues a new report in the Sunday Telegraph appears to be hinting that EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK may now be working toward an agreement on a new approach to solving the coverage problem. The plans centre around the possible establishment of a “barter system,” which would allow operators to share masts more easily in areas of only partial coverage (i.e. sharing of mast space for radio kit, provided this is reciprocated by both sides – Ofcom acting as referee).

The idea of mutually beneficial mast sharing could, if priced fairly, prove to be a useful over the longer-term and it may even result in fewer masts being needed to cover the same area (i.e. saving operators money). On top of that it would avoid the need for tougher regulations, which could be quite difficult to introduce and we suspect may also end up being delayed by lengthy legal challenges (as seems to be customary in this industry).

However, it’s unclear whether the CLA would support this alternative proposal (not that it matters to the plan itself), particularly as it suggests that fewer masts might be needed in the future and that means less rental income for land owners. Similarly Ofcom may be wary of the impact that such a system might have upon today’s aggressively competitive market, but we think it shows promise and a compromise should be possible (depending upon the terms). In theory such a mast sharing agreement could be finalised this Spring.

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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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16 Responses
  1. Joe says:

    Well this is a positive. If it happens.

    1. Phil says:

      They could make it so that there was a charge payable to the operator the phone roamed over to, wouldn’t that be an incentive for the mobile company with less infrastructure to invest in more coverage? For example if EE had 10,000 devices roam to O2, but O2 had 14,000 devices roam to EE, then O2 would owe EE for 4,000 * some charge. Also if the phone roams to another network, the user would see the roaming icon and the operator name they’ve roamed to, which is advertising for another mobile company, so if EE is providing more coverage and so hosting more rural roaming, the chances are at contract renewal those customers would join EE.

  2. Mark says:

    I won’t hold my breath,first they have to sort out planning laws, some populated area are still not covered because of objections and planning, so sharing will have little effect, and also upgrading the masts, still only 2G in my area, who’s picking up the bill?

  3. Mark says:

    Or is it an April Fools Day prank?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Nope, i’d say if it was.

  4. Dariusz says:

    Ofcom should consider mast regulations change to allow operators build higher mast in rural areas. This would reduce cost and encourage them expand the network.

  5. Guy Cashmore says:

    Even if limited to voice calls only, rural roaming is long overdue. Half my parish has O2/Voda coverage only, the other half EE/3 only, the current situation (which has been exactly the same for nearly 20 years) is an absolute joke, most locals are forced to have two phones (or dual sim), but you never know which number to call…

    1. Rob says:

      How big is your parish? Are you willing to say where it is?

    2. Guy Cashmore says:

      Bridestowe, West Devon.

    3. Mark says:

      Bridestowe population about 500, my Cotswold town area of 4000 population can’t even get a mast built because of AONB and public objections, this is ridiculous. They really need to sort this out.

    4. Joe says:

      Tbh the whole point of AONB is you don’t get some gastly mast!

  6. Michael V says:

    This mast sharing between all four Operators makes more sense. I don’t see how this proposal could be turned down. We’ve heard so often than land owners want too much money, then cause problems for the engineers getting access to the sites. It will benefit the Operators to have less sites & could get land covered quicker.

  7. Mark says:

    Well I’ve given up waiting, I’ve been testing with an EE PAYG SIM for a few weeks in my main phone and my Tesco Mobile SIM in an older phone, both iPhones.
    And consistently EE is miles ahead, also it lets you actually browse where as in some places, despite the signal you have, you can’t on Tesco.
    I’m going to buy my way out of my Tesco contract and go EE PAYG, not as good value but at least it works.

  8. Tim says:

    O2 and Vodafone already share masts. So does EE and Three. So why can’t all 4 share? Well the problem is space on masts and if they all share then they all have the same coverage and same black spots.

    Perhaps EE should be forced to be an “Openreach” for mobile networks? Too crazy? No not really, BT should not have been allowed to have such a massive advantage with EE having so much more spectrum, combined Orange and T-Mobile masts and easy/cheap/priority access to Openreach fibre.

    Or perhaps Three should be allowed to buy O2 like they wanted to. Then the Three+O2 network would have enough spectrum for CA (LTE+) and enough 800Mhz for rural coverage.

    Really it is government policies, OFCOM interference and high cost of spectrum that are strangling the mobile networks.

    1. Michael V says:

      @Tim. You’re absolutely right. Higher fees for existing 2G GSM licence renewals also hit EE, Vodafone & O2. As the government didn’t get much for LTE spectrum like they did for the 3G-UMTS auction around [2002] so they demanded more. Ofcom has failed to make things as fair as they could have. [HSPA came later]

  9. Mark says:

    @Joe, you have no idea of this area, there are 2 17 metre masts about a mile away in the AONB, as I’ve said before, it’s down to health fears, 700 signatures were all health concerns, nothing about the mast structure. If you support an application you are called names, my landowner friend was actually bullied by protesters, who said if he caused cancer to their children, they would hurt him, that’s how ridiculous it’s become here, they even protested about LED streetlights, there are many areas in Cotswolds with large masts, so I’m afraid your wrong on this occasion.

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