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National roaming alone won't fix your mobile Not-Spot

James Temperton
7 Nov 2014
South West Coastal Path near Swanage
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The government wants to fix rubbish mobile phone coverage once and for all but we'll need more than national roaming to do that

How often can you not get signal on your mobile phone? The latest coverage data shows millions of us struggle to make calls, send texts and access mobile data with the situation in some rural areas bordering on farcical. With some streets in London buzzing with superfast 4G speeds of up to 150Mbps there are still parts of the country where mobile networks provide little to no coverage. Finally, the government is stepping in to force networks to come up with a solution to fill so-called mobile 'Not-Spots'.

Culture secretary Said Javid has said he is "determined" to fix the problem and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched a consultation to find a solution. Four proposals have been made but the one that's caused the most controversy is national roaming.

The idea sounds simple enough: the government would legislate to force EE, O2, Three and Vodafone to share mobile phone coverage in areas with limited coverage. If you were on O2 and found yourself in an area not covered by the network then your phone would automatically switch to EE, for example.

Mobile networks aren't keen. They argue that they've spent billions on new infrastructure as part of a competitive market and that the introduction of national roaming would make that investment meaningless. The government made £2.34 billion in the last round of mobile spectrum auctions, with EE, O2 and Vodafone all spending over £500m on new 4G spectrum. The solution to this, according to one industry source, could be to remunerate mobile phone companies for shared use of their network in areas with poor coverage. This would also incentivise mobile networks to continue investing in new infrastructure, the source said.

Awkward comparisons have also been made between national roaming and international roaming. No matter where you go in the world you can normally get a mobile phone signal. This is because of roaming agreements between the operators that criss-cross the globe. But the comparison doesn't work. These agreements are in place between networks that don't operate in the same country. National roaming is asking direct competitors to share and play nicely.

Vodafone claims that national and international roaming also can't be compared because of the number of people they are likely to serve. The company said that national roaming risked "localised network outage" when one operator spilled over and put extra strain on another. But what about 999 calls? You may have noticed that when your phone has no signal it will say 'Emergency calls only'. A deal between the mobile networks allows 999 calls from any phone to be made on any available network. As the number of emergency calls made is very small networks are able to cope, but national roaming would require new infrastructure.

Tackling Partial Not-Spots in Mobile Phone Coverage

Mobile networks have also said that national roaming will kill phone battery life as handsets constantly search for the best network. That's very misleading. Around 21 per cent of the UK's total landmass is a partial Not-Spot according to official data. When people see they have no signal a function that allows them to turn national roaming on or off would mean that their phone is only looking for stronger network signals when necessary. The DCMS' own consultants admit that while battery life is an issue, it needn't be critical.

But national roaming isn't the only option on the proverbial table. The government is looking at other options to fix mobile Not-Spots and it is likely that a combination of all the proposals will end up being used. One of the proposals is for increased infrastructure, which would allow mobile networks to put transmitters on each other's masts. This is already happening. EE and Three have an agreement to reduce costs by working together on network deployment with a similar deal in place between O2 and Vodafone. While networks support increased infrastructure sharing, the government is likely to demand even more.

In background notes the DCMS explains that the government could require each individual network to have coverage equal to the combined coverage of all networks. Effectively, this would force networks to massively increase how much they share physical compounds, masts and even antennae and base stations. Under this plan the government wouldn't specify how mobile networks should achieve such widespread coverage but it is likely that a combination of mast sharing, national roaming and other solutions would be necessary. Mobile networks are also calling on governement to relax planning regulations that limit the placement and height of masts.

Mobile phone mast

Another suggestion is for changes to be made as to how mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) such as Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile work. MVNOs don't own any network infrastructure; instead they rely on deals with one of the four UK mobile networks to provide a service. Tesco Mobile uses O2's network with Virgin Mobile using EE. At the moment MVNOs only have deals with one operator, but reforms could ensure these deals extend to all four networks.

The industry has until 26 November to respond to the government proposals. While press coverage has turned this into a war between feckless government technical knowhow and aggressive, profit-driven mobile networks it is actually rather more benign. Outright national roaming is extremely unlikely to be the only solution used but it is extremely likely that the government will introduce new legislation to obligate mobile networks to improve coverage. For many struggling to get mobile reception, the changes can't come soon enough.

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