National roaming allows customers of one operator to roam onto another operator’s network when their home network has no signal, in a similar way to how devices roam when abroad.
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Adopting national roaming could help to close gaping holes in the UK’s rural mobile network coverage around the UK, also known as not-spots.
In an attempt to help tackle the issue, 24 Seven has set up as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) to launch a specially-developed SIM based on the O2 network, that will jump onto either EE or Vodafone if it cannot find a signal on O2.
Having been working on the system for more than 12 months, managing director David Samuel told Computer Weekly his hand was suddenly forced when the government raised the issue of national roaming in a recent consultation on improving mobile network availability in rural parts of Britain.
Initially the government hinted strongly that it might legislate to force MNOs to open up their networks to national roaming.
The MNOs were quick to come out against the idea, saying it would be damaging to mobile battery life and could cause problems with network stability, among other objections.
More on rural connectivity
This idea was ultimately killed off in favour of holding the MNOs to a £5bn infrastructure investment commitment, something that Samuel said he welcomed.
“We wanted to get our message out there because there was so much negativity from the MNOs,” he said.
While the idea of national roaming as government policy is now dead in the water, Samuel said he still believed national roaming could play a vital supporting role in bringing reliable network coverage to out-of-the-way places before the 2017 investment deadline, hence why 24 Seven is pushing ahead with it.
“Even if the government had forced national roaming, in reality it would still take them years to implement it,” he said.
The system is currently being trialled by, among others, an unnamed NHS trust in the north of England, which is equipping midwives with national roaming-enabled devices to assist at home births in rural areas.
Roaming a benefit to any organisation
Morris Pentel, chairman of the Customer Experience Foundation, a customer experience services consultancy which is also trialling the technology, said besides the NHS and rural local authorities, national roaming would have benefits for “any organisation with a practical concern about the security and safety of its staff”.
“I speak a lot at events and travel hugely, and national roaming means I am always able to get a signal even if my other phone can’t find the network,” he said.
According to Pentel, the government had been “badly advised” when it decided to ditch the idea of national roaming and 24 Seven’s technology could play a substantial role in eliminating not-spots at a much lower cost.
“Watching the dance around the question of national coverage has given me a certain amount of wry amusement, given how much money is being spent,” he added.