The Notspot Debate Drags on… and on…

Mast-protest

Why should tourists to the UK get a better service on their mobile than us Brits? It seems the Government and the mobile operators are at loggerheads over what can be done as Comms Business reports.

I am always suspicious of politicians. When I hear a headline heralding a ‘Government Crackdown on ….’ I know from 60 years of reading these headlines and 60 years of witnessing what actually happens are two entirely different things.

So when the TV news screamed, ‘’Government crackdown on mobile ‘notspots’,” all I thought was here we go again – all froth and no substance, a bit like a McDonalds Latte.

We are all aware of the shortcomings of our mobile networks – poor coverage and no UK roaming akin to that we get when abroad and what tourists get here in the UK. Quite frankly I think our UK network is poor considering how much we paid for it – yes I mean we, the user paid for it. Operators that coughed for spectrum were not doing it for charity and our monthly subscriptions are the main vehicle by which they recover the money.

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 10.20.42Now it appears that the Government plans to oblige mobile operators to improve their coverage, possibly by sharing rivals’ networks. Partial ‘notspots’, where there is coverage from some but not all of the mobile networks, affects a fifth of the UK, leaving people unable to make calls or send texts and the Government sees one possible solution as people being transferred to rival networks when they lose signal.

As you would expect there are a minimum of two sides to this story with operators, so called experts and even government departments disagreeing with this solution. But whilst experts are not convinced this would work Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined to sort out the issue of mobile notspots.

However it is no surprise to hear that a series of talks held with mobile operators has so far failed to find a solution. So the big talk then hits the headlines, “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,” the Culture Secretary said.

Proposals

Javid’s proposals to end the frustration – currently only aimed at improving 2G services – are as follows:

National roaming – phones would use another network when theirs was unavailable, similar to how roaming works when abroad

Infrastructure sharing – mobile networks would be able to put transmitters on each other’s masts

Reforming virtual networks – agreements that companies such as Tesco and Virgin currently have with single operators would be extended to all four networks

Coverage obligation – obliging the networks to cover a certain percentage of the UK – and leaving them to decide how to do it

The Government gave the industry, businesses and the public until 26 November to respond to the proposals – about three weeks.

But the Culture Secretary may face opposition to the move from within his own party.

The Times newspaper reported that a leaked Whitehall letter contains a warning from the Home Secretary Theresa May that allowing people to roam between networks could compromise efforts to track criminals and terrorists.

Javid’s plan is reported to have prompted Theresa May to warn of security issues. She said, “[It] could have a detrimental impact on law enforcement, security and intelligence agency access to communications data and lawful intercept,” states the letter.

It adds that further research is needed to ensure the change would not make it more difficult for police to access information about calls and emails that is “crucial to keeping us safe.”

Phone Masts

The technical argument from the operators centres around their belief that roaming would shorten battery life as phones searched for the strongest signal, and pose a risk to the security of their networks.

What operators want is changes to planning laws and the ability to build and share more phone masts.

Matthew Howett, an analyst with research firm Ovum, also thinks that the Government’s preferred plan of national roaming is ‘a messy solution that ought to be abandoned’.

“The cost, complexity and side-effects of national roaming make it such an unworkable fix that the industry thought had been dropped,” he reported on the BBC.

“What needs to happen over the next month is collectively for the mobile operators to work with the Government to come up with an agreeable fix that addresses not only poor voice coverage, but also data too,” he added.

Making it easier for operators to put up masts quickly in a cost-effective way would also help current coverage issues; mobile spectrum auctioned last year was well-suited to covering rural areas and operators are starting to make use of it and that too should help improve the situation.

While the Government’s consultation is looking specifically at 2G services, a study commissioned by consumer watchdog Which indicates 3G and 4G coverage is also patchy around the UK.

The report into the state of the mobile phone network found big differences between the four operators in different parts of the country.

Both 3G and 4G are best in London and worst in Wales

Three had the best 3G coverage and Vodafone the worst, but Vodafone offered the fastest 4G speeds

Three was the slowest 4G network and had the worst coverage, while EE had the best 4G coverage

The report, compiled by OpenSignal, a company that crowd sources phone signal strength, looked at the 3G and 4G mobile signals of nearly 40,000 phone users of EE, 02, Three and Vodafone’s networks.

It found that 4G speeds have almost halved in the past year as more people sign up to such services.

The operators themselves have not been quiet with a Vodafone statement saying:

“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.”

The statement then adds all the expense Vodafone is going to update their network and how keen they are to work with the Government and Ofcom.

Meanwhile Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK, an organisation that represents the tech industry in the UK told us,  “Getting the best mobile coverage and quality of service for UK consumers is essential in today’s digital society.”

techUK believes that technology should be ubiquitous and supports the underlying motivation behind the announcement by the Government calling for further action to fill remaining gaps in mobile coverage. However, Walker says implementing national roaming, which is one of the four options being considered, would be a very big step.

“The incentives for infrastructure deployment are very finely balanced and care must be taken to ensure that a switch to national roaming does not lead to unintended consequences. As Ed Richards Chief Executive of Ofcom, explained to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee national roaming could ‘disincentivise’ infrastructure investment and competition as well as have technical consequences leading to a worse overall customer experience.”

He concluded, “Extending the reach and quality of mobile services is a vital goal but it’s paramount that an in-depth and detailed consultation with industry takes place, ensuring investment infrastructure and competition is balanced with the needs and experience of the consumer. A three week consultation process is too short to fully consider all the options and implications of such an important issue with such long term consequence.”

Ed Says…

Three weeks? We’ve got a big problem that could cost a lot, impact national security and create more problems than we have got now. The three weeks will be up by the time you read this and my guess is that Theresa May will win the argument – ‘There’ll be no roaming on my watch thank you!’, and the Government will promise an easing of planning laws. Why do I say that? Well it’s a no cost solution that maintains a status quo yet promises help to operators. Me? A cynic! Surely not.