Networks slam national roaming plan for ‘partial not-spots’


They claim proposal to improve coverage in areas that receive little or no signal would deteriorate network reliability and resilience, and would be complex and slow to implement

Mobile operators have slammed a proposal by the Government that could result in a national roaming network being implemented to improve coverage in black spots.

The Government has today set out plans to eliminate poor mobile coverage, which it said blights a fifth of the UK, leaving many mobile users with a poor signal that prevents them from making calls or sending texts.

It added these so called ‘partial not-spots have coverage from some but not all of the four mobile networks (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) and depending on the network they are on, they may have no coverage at all.

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has said he is determined to rectify this and have launched a consultation on the various legislative proposals that can help achieve this. The consultation closes on November 26.

“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.

“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.”

The options in the consultation include national roaming, which would see phones roam onto another network’s signal when theirs was not available, similar to what happens when consumers are abroad.

However, UK mobile operators have slammed this proposal, claiming it would significantly impact on network reliability and resilience, and would be complex and slow to implement.

An EE spokesperson said labelled national roaming a “flawed concept” and appealed for the government to work more closely with the industry.

“We fully support Government on the joint ambition to improve rural coverage. We’re keenly aware that there are some parts of the UK where customers still can’t get adequate signal levels and, while  we’re already working on some significant nationwide coverage improvement plans, we also need Government to work more closely with the industry to remove the barriers to efficiently building more signal in more places.

“What we don’t want to do is implement the flawed concept of ‘national roaming’. This will deteriorate network reliability for tens of millions across the UK, plus it also risks prices rising, which customers understandably won’t tolerate.”

Vodafone is in the biggest network programme in its history. It is spending £1 billion on its UK network and services this year to improve coverage and under its ‘Rural Open Sure Signal’ programme, will bring 3G coverage to more than 100 rural not-spots.

It said in a statement: “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. 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.

“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.

“Furthermore, national roaming would also harm the business case for further investment in rural coverage: why should any operator invest in providing better coverage for the benefit of a competitor?

“We and the other UK mobile operators have already submitted a number of alternative proposals for a strategic partnership between industry and Government which would deliver better outcomes more effectively. These proposals include further site sharing by operators. They would also require the Government to deliver improvements to a number of policy areas – particularly planning regulation – which are the biggest barriers to improved rural coverage, accounting for lengthy delays when operators seek to install or upgrade mobile infrastructure.”

O2 is investing £1.5 million in its network every day to improve connectivity for customers across 2G, 3G, 4G and WiFi.

A spokesperson said: “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.   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.”

There are also three other proposals set out in the Government’s proposal. The first is infrastructure sharing, which would enable mobile networks to put transmitters on each other’s masts.

The second would see MVNOs such as Virgin Media and Tesco Mobile offer mobiles that access all four networks, with the final one obliging networks to cover a certain percentage of the UK but leaving it open for them to decide how to best achieve this outcome.