Mobile Operators Defiant As Government Details National Roaming Plans

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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The UK’s major mobile operators say national roaming network won’t solve rural notspots as the government launches a new consultation

The government is pressing ahead with plans for a ‘national roaming’ network that would require mobile operators to grant customers access to rivals’ signals in areas with poor coverage, despite widespread opposition from within the industry.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched a consultation outlining its plans to improve rural ‘notspots’ which “blight” a fifth of the UK and has invited all parties to contribute before the 26 November.

Proposals include not only a national roaming network, but also infrastructure sharing,  the reformation of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) so they can use all four major UK operators’ networks and coverage obligations that would require EE, O2, Vodafone and Three to cover a minimum percentage of the population.

National roaming

windmill suffolk country rural © Douglas Freer shutterstock“It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call,” says Culture Secretary Sajid Javid. “The Government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue. We’ve been talking to the mobile companies about the problem and they are working with us to find a solution.”

The government has been keen on a ‘national roaming’ network since earlier this year, but says talks with operators to find a voluntary solution have so far failed. The networks feel such legislation wold be interventionist, remove any incentive to invest in networks and would be unfair given the millions of pounds spent on LTE licences in the Ofcom spectrum auction last year.

The operators add that a national roaming network would be more complex and costly to implement than an international roaming system and say the former would only aid voice calls, not data, something which would be counter-intuitive at a time when billions are being invested in 4G networks.

Operator resistance

TechWeekEurope understands that a number of alternatives, such as voice over Wi-Fi, Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and more network sharing were proposed during the operators’ meetings with the government, but all were ignored.

“As Vodafone and the other UK mobile operators have told the Government directly on a number of occasions, national roaming will not provide the people of the UK with better quality voice and mobile internet coverage,” says Vodafone. “In fact, it would make coverage and quality significantly worse from the customer’s perspective, with a much higher risk of dropped calls, lower battery life and negative impact on services such as voicemail.”

“We and the other operators have already explained to the Government that national roaming across the UK is fundamentally different to international roaming. It would be technically far more complex, slow to implement and would cause serious problems with network resilience.”

“We have made our concerns over the national roaming proposals very clear and have advised the government on a range of alternative solutions to achieve the same ambition, some of which we have already embarked upon,” adds O2. “National roaming is a regulatory solution that will worsen the experience people have when using their phones and undermine future investment in mobile infrastructure in the UK.”

Less red tape

Industry observers have also questioned the wisdom of implementing such a “messy system” and have called for more negotiations between the government and network operators. Possible solutions could be a relaxation of planning requirements for mobile masts and the further rollout of the 800MHz band, which offers longer range, although less capacity than the other frequencies currently used for LTE.

“What needs to happen over the next few weeks is collectively for the mobile operators to work with government to come up with an agreeable fix that addresses not only poor voice coverage, but also data too,” explains Matthew Howett, analyst at Ovum. “Any solution must also acknowledge the fact that things are heading in the right direction.

“Mobile spectrum auctioned last year at 800MHz is particularly well suited to covering large and more rural areas and operators are only just starting to make use of these airwaves. The eventual solution must work to incentivise operators to continue to invest in rolling out networks, which is already happening at a far quicker pace that anticipated just a few years ago. The most obvious thing for the government to do would be to make it easier for operators to put up masts quickly and in the most cost effective way.”

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