UK mobile operators turn down national roaming as a solution to rural coverage problems

via Flickr © Alison Christine (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Alison Christine (CC BY 2.0)

UK mobile operators have baulked at a UK government suggestion that they institute national roaming arrangements to overcome rural not-spot problems. Last month a government-commissioned report found that rural communications in the UK were atrocious. (see - English countryside: unspoilt by both mobile masts and mobile conversations).

Rural users reported that only 85 per cent of their calls are problem-free, with Vodafone the worst offender with a completion rate of just 79.99 per cent  - in other words one in five Vodafone calls fails in one way or another. Perversely, two thirds of rural users report themselves ‘happy’  with this level of service.

The relevant minister, however, is not. It’s been suggested in the past that pressure to ‘do something’ about mobile coverage always increases when government ministers pack their buckets and spades and dutifully (some of them) enjoy a seaside holiday only to return livid at the appalling phone services.  

The timing (early September) of the latest move may be a coincidence, but according to a report in the Financial Times the UK operators have remained unmoved by a suggestion from Ed Vaizey, the digital economy minister, that they stir themselves and come up with a solution to the problem of rural coverage -  the not spot problem.

To kick things off, Mr Vaizey has suggested a limited form of national roaming as a potential way out. This is a suggestion that the operators dislike very much. Not, I suspect, because it’s in any way difficult to do, but because of what the precedent, once established, might lead to.

According to Finnish consultancy Rewheel’s Pal Zarandy, too much sharing (or too much mandated roaming) could end up blunting competition.  "The right balance in our opinion is to promote sharing of passive infrastructure, e.g. make site sharing mandatory in ‘not spots’. But to ensure that each operator uses its own radio hardware, software and spectrum.”

That way, maintains Zarandy, operators retain an overall incentive to keep competing on who could achieve the best deal with their vendor and win the most spectrum-efficient equipment at the lowest cost.

What established operators fear most of all is a mechanism that might allow a challenger network to build and use other operators’ networks to fill out coverage as they did so.  This sort of thing has proved disastrous for the established national operators in France, where Iliad’s Free used a network sharing deal with Orange to establish its cut-price national network.

So it’s a ‘no’ for Ed, with the operators suggested that it would be difficult for a national roaming scheme to be readied in the time-frame suggested. My information is that there’s no real problem in instituting national roaming.

Still, Vaizey was probably expecting this and is now waiting for an alternative suggestion.

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