Mark Bridge writes:
A suggestion that UK mobile phone networks might be forced to improve black-spot coverage by allowing interconnection with their rivals is back in the news. It made the headlines in June and has returned again this week, which is why I could be heard offering my opinion on BBC local radio yesterday morning.
The topic is being talked about again because the government has announced a consultation into tackling ‘not spots’ in mobile phone coverage.
According to the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, who - as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport - is responsible for the report, “This isn’t just about lifestyle, it’s vital for our modern economy.”
Mr Javid starts by acknowledging that “Government has already introduced the Mobile Infrastructure Project to tackle the issue of complete not-spots, where there is no mobile signal available at all.” Very true. The government’s Mobile Infrastructure Project was launched in 2011 to add coverage in areas where there wasn’t any commercial incentive to do so, spending £150 million to do this.
This new consultation is about partial not-spots, where at least one network offers coverage but others don’t.
Now, some might say this is unnecessary because we already have a national ‘roaming’ agreement for emergency mobile phone coverage in these areas. Since 2009, anyone making a call to the emergency services - whether on 999 or 112 - has been connected to another network if their chosen mobile network wasn’t available.
Anyway, the consultation document says it’s examining three potential measures to address the problem of partial not-spots. These are:
a. addressing coverage (infrastructure sharing);
b. Multi-Operator-Mobile Virtual Network Operator (where mobile services are retailed by an entity distinct from a mobile network operator e.g. TalkTalk Mobile, Virgin Mobile);
c. national roaming.
There’s also a fourth ‘do nothing’ option.
Infrastructure sharing sounds interesting. In fact, it’s so interesting that all the ‘big four’ networks are already doing it.
Three and T-Mobile set up a business called Mobile Broadband Network Limited (MBNL) back in 2007 to share sites. Orange and T-Mobile got together after the formation of EE, with EE later joining the MBNL party. And Vodafone and O2 set up a business called Cornerstone in 2012, sharing their masts and backhaul.
Okay, so that’s hardly a new idea. What about a SIM card that allows customers to connect to multiple UK networks? The kind of thing that foreign visitors benefit from when they visit the UK.
Nice thought. And already available. In fact, I could buy one today.
What about mandated national roaming? Well, obviously not available at the moment - but why bother? It seems to go against the ‘competition delivers what customers want’ dialogue we’ve heard previously from the government. There could well be some issue with competition law. It’s a disincentive to future investment. It may adversely affect battery life on phones. And it might even cause problems with anti-terrorism activity by muddling the metadata from calls.
At this point, I’ll point out that this enormously-significant consultation - from an industry that literally spends billions of pounds a year on improving its network coverage - will run for three weeks. Just 21 days. To contrast, Ofcom’s latest consultation on Communications services and SMEs is giving people two months to construct their responses.
Then there’s option four: do nothing.
Let’s take a look at that consultation document again. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport writes “I have held initial discussions with the four Mobile Network Operators and I note the work in place to improve coverage.” Excellent. So he’s talked to them and is aware they’re working on the problem. He goes on to say “I am keen to work with them to find a voluntary solution to the problem, however I would be prepared to mandate a solution in line with wider government interests, should insufficient progress be made.”
Oh, I see now. Given the choice between offering carrot and stick, it looks as though Mr Javid has chosen to implement the consultation document as his stick. A stick that could be applied in just three weeks’ time.
Still, at least it won’t be long before we find out what’s going to happen next.
We discussed the UK government plans for reducing so-called 'not spots' in our podcast on 12th November 2014. You can listen to the programme on our website audio player, via iTunes, by using our RSS feed, on the Stitcher.com mobile app or by downloading the mp3 file directly.