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National roaming: why mobile operators are fighting the UK government

Matt Brian, @m4tt
11.10.14
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The concept of national roaming first appeared back in June, when Culture Secretary Sajid Javid began advocating a system that would allow UK mobiles to switch networks in places where the carrier they're supposed to be on offers no signal. The idea is to rid Britain of so-called mobile "not-spots," rural areas where populations are small and coverage is minimal, by coercing the major carriers to share their networks with each other. The government recently launched a consultation to explore ways it can achieve this goal. Operators, however, have been vociferous in their opposition to the plans. What's their excuse?

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To understand why EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three are against national roaming, we first need to appreciate what the government is asking of them. Under the current proposal, carriers would need to let phones jump between networks, and allow rivals to install transmitters on their own masts. Also, virtual operators like Virgin Mobile or Tesco Mobile would no longer need to sign a network agreement with just one carrier, and would instead be free to offer plans that cruise all four networks. Finally, carriers would be obligated to provide coverage to "a certain percentage" of the UK, though it's not clear how high that bar would be set.

Currently, 99 percent of UK premises have mobile coverage, but up to 21 percent of the UK's surface area is affected by partial black spots. The national roaming plan is expected to plug some of these gaps, but carriers are warning it could have unpleasant ramifications. A reduction in call quality is one potential issue.

"National roaming will not provide the people of the UK with better quality voice and mobile internet coverage," says a Vodafone spokesperson. "In fact, it would make coverage and quality significantly worse from the customers' perspective, with a much higher risk of dropped calls, lower battery life and negative impact on services such as voicemail." EE echoes these sentiments, adding: "We fully support the government on the joint ambition to improve rural coverage. 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."

Why would prices rise? Well, unlike international roaming, which sees carriers ink individual deals with foreign counterparts, domestic roaming is a lot more complex. If an EE customer is calling a Vodafone customer, and they both happen to be connected to O2's network at the time, all carriers involved have to figure out who gets charged what. Solving this logistical puzzle will inevitably cost money, which needs to be recouped somewhere. And where else are carriers going to find it if they don't increase prices for consumers?

Camping

The national roaming proposal also expects carriers to support in-call handovers, ensuring phone calls don't drop when moving between networks. Because none of their systems were built with this in mind, serious investment would be required to implement it. Again, this money has to come from somewhere.

Because the plan is focused on making basic voice and text services available everywhere, 2G technology is key to delivering on national roaming. That's because every single phone sold in the UK supports the three main 2G frequencies, and all carriers except Three -- which launched as an all-3G service -- still maintain 2G networks to act as fallbacks for their 3G and 4G services. However, as expanding 4G coverage is now top priority, the providers we've spoken to are worried they'll need to dedicate far more resources than originally planned to sustain older technologies. Resources that could be used to expand coverage in rural areas.

Sharing networks also raises potential safety concerns, too. If one network was to suffer an outage, those connected would automatically be palmed off to another carrier's network. A sudden influx of new connections could also shut that network down and in the event of an emergency, not being able to dial out is... an issue.

Virtual operators

While the carriers are unanimous in their opposition to network sharing, it's the idea that MVNOs can sell plans that aren't bound to any one major player that has providers really scratching their heads.

As it stands, virtual operators like Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile and others sign exclusive network agreements with one of the big four carriers to provide mobile service for their customers. The providers worry that if MVNOs are allowed to use any airwaves, they won't be able to budget for how much traffic their networks will carry, which could impact their costs. Faced with this uncertainty, carriers could choose to terminate MVNO relationships and make it incredibly tough for companies like Virgin Mobile to continue operating.

What's the solution?

The UK's four operators agree that rural coverage needs to be improved, but say national roaming isn't the answer. Experts have suggested that the government should drop the idea altogether and instead focus on making it easier for providers to improve connectivity in "not-spot" areas. This could involve more site-sharing agreements. EE and Three already share some of their mobile masts through a joint venture, as do O2 and Vodafone. By establishing more agreements of this nature, carriers could fill in not-spots for less that it would cost to make national roaming viable.

The government could also ease regulations placed upon mobile sites. Right now, Vodafone et al are required to keep masts below a certain height, so they aren't an eyesore on the surrounding landscape. Restricting the height impacts signal range, however, meaning more masts are required to shroud an area that fewer, higher towers could serve just as well. Regulators also require carriers to pay landowners differing fees depending on what frequencies masts cover, instead of just a flat fee for each mobile mast built.

Fortunately, the government is aware of some of these issues and has noted them in its consultation. The main operators have until November 26th to suggest alternative solutions that will please Mr Javid.

[Lead Image credit: kgabhi, Flickr / Camping image credit: tedandjen, Flickr]

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