Government may force networks to accept national roaming

The government plans to eliminate poor mobile coverage in the UK by making MNOs adopt national roaming

The government is launching a consultation on eliminating poor mobile coverage from rural areas of the UK by forcing mobile network operators (MNOs) to adopt national roaming over each other’s networks.

It is estimated about a fifth of the country suffers from poor mobile signal, leaving users unable to make calls or receive texts.

Recent statistics released by the Federation of Small Businesses claimed 51% of businesses said their staff often had problems with reception.

Culture secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined to improve coverage from all of the big four MNOs – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – in such areas.

The consultation, which will run until 26 November 2014, will seek to explore ways this can be achieved. This includes national roaming, where mobile phones would roam onto another network’s signal when they could not find their own, in the same way they roam when abroad.

Because many "notspots" have coverage from some but not all of the big four MNOs, national roaming could well be a viable, actionable solution.

MNOs against national roaming

The MNOs, however, have come out against the concept of national roaming, saying it would work against consumer interests.

The operators claim national roaming would hurt battery life as devices seek to connect to other networks, and may negatively impact the stability of their networks.

The preferred option for the MNOs would be the construction of more masts and infrastructure sharing, which will also be on the table during the consultation.

It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue

Sajid Javid, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

The government has already been talking with the operators to attempt to find a voluntary solution, and will continue to do so, however ultimately it did not rule out legislating to force the issue following the consultation.

“I’m determined to ensure the UK has world-class mobile phone coverage, as investment in infrastructure will help drive this government’s long-term economic plan,” said Javid.

“It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. 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.

“This consultation will complement the work industry is doing and allow the government to hear from the wider telecoms sector, businesses and the public,” he concluded.

The consultation will seek input from businesses, stakeholders and the public around the following areas:

  • National roaming, allowing phones to roam onto another network’s signal – the government's preferred option;
  • Infrastructure sharing, allowing MNOs to put transmitters on one another’s mast – the MNOs' preferred option;
  • Mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) reform, enabling MVNO operators such as Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile to access all four networks, not just the one they have an agreement with, which is usually EE;
  • Coverage obligation, forcing the networks to commit to covering a certain percentage of the UK, but leaving it open for them to decide how best to go about this.

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