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MPs Demand National Roaming Network To Improve Rural Mobile Coverage

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Broadband Infrastructure Group (BIG) believes macro not spot targeting for national roaming could help solve rural mobile coverage problems

A group of MPs have called for the government to reconsider the introduction of a ‘national roaming’ network that would allow mobile users in rural areas with poor coverage to switch between operators depending on which had the strongest signal.

Such a proposal had been touted two years ago, but strong opposition from all four operators resulted in a legally binding obligation to spend £5 billion to deliver a 2G voice service to 90 percent of the UK landmass.

However the Broadband Infrastructure Group (BIG) says coverage has not improved since then and expects this target to be missed. It is demanding an update on progress and wants the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to investigate a more targeted approach to national roaming.

Read More: What next for rural mobile coverage?

Poor rural coverage

windmill suffolk country rural © Douglas Freer shutterstockIt also criticised the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), a £150 million programme that identified 600 sites that could have been upgraded but only served 75. Even Ed Vaizey, the minister behind MIP, admitted it had not been a success.

“It is absurd that visitors to the UK receive better and broader mobile coverage, because foreign SIM cards enable roaming across national networks,” said the BIG’s report, which is supported by 90 MPs from different parties. “In contrast, there is no such agreement amongst our mobile phone providers for Britons.

“The key targets of the £5 billion agreement, especially the industry’s commitment to provide mobile voice coverage to 90 percent of the British geographic area, are highly unlikely to be achieved in time for the deadline next year.  The latest estimates suggest that 28 percent of all rural areas in the UK remain without coverage.”

National roaming revisited

The BIG accepts the opposition to national roaming within the industry, which believes competition and investment in cellular infrastructure would be negatively impacted, and the cost and technical difficulties of such a system.

But it argues a more targeted approach aimed at the 1.5 million customers affected by partial not spots would result in greater economic benefit than the cost of deployment. It also noted that infrastructure sharing arrangements like MBNL between EE and Three are evidence that the technical challenges can be overcome.

“This approach is known as ‘macro not spot’ roaming, and the DCMS should undertake an impact assessment to determine whether this policy could be implemented in areas of the UK that need mobile coverage the most,” said the report.

The report also calls for a minimum service obligation that would allow customers to exit a contract without penalty if they do not receive that standard and urges the government to push through reforms to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) as a priority. These reforms will make it easier for operators to deploy network infrastructure.

Industry opposition

Vodafone London 2Industry body Mobile UK said operators “fully accept” the report’s underlying point that networks must be invested in and developed but stressed they are working “competitively” to meet the 90 percent target by 2017.

However it also claims it is “essential” that the UK market remains competitive.

“For this reason, Mobile UK does not support the use of ‘national roaming’; it is not only technically difficult to do in a localised way, can deliver a poor customer experience and increases operational costs, but also is a significant disincentive to competitive network investment,” it argued.

Vodafone told TechWeekEurope it has already surpassed the 90 percent target and claimed its 4G service reached 95 percent of the UK population.

“We always want to improve on that, which is why we are the only company to offer a 30-day network satisfaction guarantee, allowing customers to cancel their contract with no commitment within the first 30 days, and the only one to offer the Rural Open Sure Signal service – a mini aerial for hard to reach coverage not spots,” said a spokesperson.

BT-owned EE has pledged to deliver 4G to 95 percent of the UK landmass by the end of the decade, however this target is not part of the agreement with government

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