Why national roaming may not be the answer to mobile not-spots

Industry suggests alternative strategies as government threatens to force mobile operators to allow national roaming

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The idea of national roaming theoretically addresses the problem of mobile connectivity in areas outside a given mobile network operator's (MNO) coverage. Allowing an MNO's customers to roam onto the networks of others when their own devices can’t receive a 2, 3 or 4G signal just makes sense.

Secretary of state for culture, media and sport Sajid Javid has launched a consultation on how to tackle the problem of mobile "not-spots". It will run until the end of November 2014 and will seek opinion on strategies to eliminate the problem and bring reliable mobile connectivity to the whole country, even those parts hardest to reach.

“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,” said Javid.

The government warned that, if a solution could not be found, it may legislate to force MNOs down its preferred pathway.

Among the options tabled by the government are: national roaming; shared infrastructure; MNOs using each other’s masts; and mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) reform, giving Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile and competitors more and better access to the big four networks of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.

The most contentious of these, it has emerged, is national roaming. But why should this be?

Poor consumer experience

Vodafone was the first of the big operators to speak out against Javid’s preferred option. The firm said it has told the government directly, several times, that national roaming is not the answer to the UK’s lack of mobile coverage.

A Vodafone spokesperson said: “It will make coverage and quality significantly worse from the customer’s perspective.”

Vodafone said it believes national roaming will increase the risk of dropped calls, due to more congested networks; and reduce devices' battery life, as they constantly search for networks with a better signal.

“National roaming across the UK is fundamentally different to international roaming,” said Vodafone. “It would be technically far more complex, slow to implement and would cause serious problems with network resilience.

“National roaming would also be extremely challenging from a legal and regulatory perspective, as UK mobile operators have paid the government hundreds of millions of pounds for spectrum licences on the basis of existing regulation – founded on the principle of competing networks.”

Alternative proposals

Vodafone said that, together with the other MNOs, it had already submitted a number of other proposals, such as mast-sharing, but that it was committed to working with the government towards a fair solution.

The operator called on government to deliver improvements on a number of policy issues, including planning regulations covering permissible mast height, which it sees as the biggest barrier to improving rural mobile coverage.

The costs of network-sharing are not outweighed by the benefits to the odd grump in Cornwall

Chris Watson, CMS

TechUK’s Antony Walker, deputy CEO at the industry association, agreed, saying that outgoing Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards had already told DCMS, in no uncertain terms, how national roaming could lead to unintended consequences.

Investment and competition

In addition to Vodafone’s concerns over sustained service quality, Walker warned that national roaming could discourage infrastructure investment and competition.

“Extending the reach and quality of mobile services is a vital goal but it’s paramount that an in-depth and detailed consultation with industry takes place. A three-week consultation process is too short,” he said.

Chris Watson, head of communications, media and technology at law firm CMS, said it was unreasonable to expect MNOs to co-operate with competitors in the same way as with international roaming partners.

“There is no universal right to a mobile phone service and, frankly, the costs of network-sharing are not outweighed by the benefits to the odd grump in Cornwall," he said.

Ovum practice leader for regulation, Matthew Howett, went further, saying outright that the idea of national roaming ought to be abandoned.

“While it might work when you travel abroad, it isn’t a solution to dealing with poor mobile coverage domestically,” said Howett. “The cost, complexity and side effects make it such an unworkable fix that the industry thought it had been dropped.”

Spectrum allocation

Howett suggested a number of alternatives but, above all, urged the government to give the industry time to come up with the right answer. He pointed out that last year’s auction of 800MHz spectrum was well suited to large, rural areas, and MNOs were only now beginning to take advantage of that.

The eventual technology should encourage operators to continue to invest in rolling out networks, he said, "which is already happening at a far quicker pace than anticipated just a few years ago”.

Howett added that Ofcom’s reconsideration of annual spectrum licence fees would need to be a part of the debate.

Currently the proposal is for the MNOs to pay over £180m more than at present to use the 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrum.

This money, he said, would surely be better spent on eliminating not-spots once and for all.

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