Opinion: The pitfalls of allowing national roaming

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The UK government wants operators to share their networks to help reduce ‘not spots’. But is this really the right way to go?

Operators don’t tend to get a lot of sympathy when it comes to regulation. After-all, most changes are designed to directly affect the consumer, particularly around cost. No sooner have they had to digest the reality that the millions earned a year from international roaming will disappear (in Europe), that the government now wants operators to allow THEIR rivals and THEIR customers to access THEIR networks.

This may sound great for the consumer, (we all know what it’s like to be stuck in an area with a phone with no reception) but you can understand the operators frustrations on this proposal.

The government argues that more than 20 per cent of the UK is affected by partial not-spots where they do not have access to all four networks.

Granted, people living in rural areas should have access to more than one or two networks but punishing the operators who have actually invested in these areas, by opening up their infrastructure, is surely the wrong way to go about it.

Imagine the reaction in the supermarket industry if a town with only a small Tesco was told it had to sell the products of Sainsburys and Asda so as to enhance customer choice. It just wouldn’t happen. How about banning Usain Bolt from running until he shares his training secrets?

Vodafone, EE and O2 have pumped billions in to their networks, each in a bid to out do the other and create a sense of differentiation and advantage. If these proposals were to be made law, could you really blame the CFO of each of those to review their investment plans?

Out of all the options that will be looked at in the next couple of weeks, the idea that an MVNO should be allowed access to all four networks is the most baffling. How can it even be considered that a telecoms player with no network infrastructure whatsoever should gain such an advantage in one fifth of the country.

The operators have been strong in their public statements surrounding the proposed regulations and privately a number have expressed concerns to us about the way the government is approaching the problem.

One claimed that the three week lead time was the shortest they had ever experienced for a consultation and were bemused this was announced at the time that discussions were still going on. Another claimed that the government doesn’t fully grasp the technological issues that would need to be grappled with to implement a system. It makes you wonder if this has all been dreamed up by some policy wonk looking for a few easy rural votes ahead of next year’s general election.

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