National roaming for mobile: where to turn?

By Sooraj Shah
28 Jul 2014 View Comments
Man using phone on a train platform roaming

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are swinging their swords in battle once again – but for once it isn’t with one another, it’s with Whitehall. Plans currently being considered by ministers mean that operators could be made to share their networks for the benefit of consumers, but they claim that this would be to the detriment of the mobile market – and to customer service levels.

The “national roaming” plan was discussed in the House of Commons, with culture secretary Sajid Javid stating that he wants “operators in the UK to go further” and that he was in talks regarding the issue with those operators and regulator Ofcom.

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He added that “no firm decisions have been taken at this point” but that it remained a “very important issue”.

It has been suggested that national roaming could be used to plug black spots in rural areas where many are left without a signal.

But the MNOs have insisted that they’ve invested heavily in the past few years to ensure their networks are differentiated, and that this is necessary to ensure there is continued competitiveness in what is a fierce market.

“Some of the MNOs have invested a lot of money to ensure their networks are one step ahead of everyone else and so they are reluctant to get in a position where they’re effectively creating one network where everything is equal,” Ovum analyst Matthew Howett explained.

An O2 spokesperson told Computing that “national roaming is not a silver bullet to improve areas of no coverage in rural areas”.

There are other methods for improving coverage in the areas affected; last year the government announced it would invest up to £150m to improve coverage and quality of mobile phone services in “notspots” – bringing a mobile signal to 99 per cent of the UK.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have backed the project, and stated that they would fund their own operating costs for the 20-year life of the project using the 800MHz bandwidth available to them.

The ‘need’ for national roaming

Culture secretary Javid admitted that French nationals who visited the UK got better coverage than UK nationals because of international roaming.

If the government does try to push through the “national roaming” exercise, it could open up an opportunity for a new entrant to the market, which could automate the best-value network for international travellers to use upon entry to the UK. This would mean that if O2’s parent company Telefonica had one of its European customers travelling to the UK, and the O2 network was not the best value (for coverage and price), the consumer would be put on to a rival network to suit them.

The same system could then apply to UK citizens, whereby users could switch between networks at will – with a new system that sits on top of the four UK networks determining which one offers the best value. The desired outcome is that customers will receive a better service for less money.

But John Cooke, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association, which represents the big four MNOs, believes that the national roaming plan would be faced with a number of technical difficulties. This could include network integration and the idea that consumers’ batteries would be drained faster if they kept trying to connect to a different network.

Indeed, an Ofcom study from 2010 found that a national roaming solution is “not technically feasible” and would not provide a commercial return for MNOs.

However, a similar solution has been implemented in the past. In the early days of 3G, Hutchinson Whampoa was granted national roaming on other operators’ networks, so that customers could use, make and receive calls and data in the UK, while Three continued rolling out its network.

According to Ovum’s Howett, the idea of a new entrant coming in to provide this “roaming” service is unlikely because of the fierce competition and recent consolidation of networks.

He believes the discussions about roaming could be a distraction from the government, after Ofcom proposed higher annual licence fees for the mobile spectrum that MNOs own.

“For example, EE may have to pay £87m more than the past year for the annual licence fees. The MNOs have suggested that if prices are increased, the rollout to blackspots would be hampered as they’d have less money to invest in their networks. I suspect this is a bargaining chip played by the government in these discussions,” Howett said.

Ultimately, he believes the national roaming plan is unlikely to happen at all because it is a recipe for disaster for the MNOs. But perhaps the missing ingredient is a provider that is able to disrupt the market.


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