UK government consults on measures to address 'not spots'

Out-Law News | 07 Nov 2014 | 9:55 am | 2 min. read

The UK government has opened a consultation on proposals which would compel mobile network operators (MNOs) to address shortcomings in their network coverage.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is responsible for telecommunications policy in the UK, said one of the options under consideration is introducing a requirement, backed by legislation, that MNOs allow customers from rival providers to be transferred onto their networks when the customer cannot get a signal from their own provider.

The 'national roaming' concept would apply to 2G voice and text services only. Ofcom has confirmed that national roaming is technically feasible.

DCMS said that approximately 1 million consumers in the UK that currently live in "partial not-spot areas" would stand to benefit from national roaming, through having "greater choice of providers, services and packages". It classed 'partial not-spot areas' as "places where there may be a signal from one or two operators" but not all four of the main UK MNOs, O2, EE, Three and Vodafone.

Visitors to those areas "would benefit from having mobile signal where they don’t currently". The economic benefits for visitors alone in "having the ability to make and receive calls and text messages in partial not-spots" could be as much as £249 million over a 10 year period, it said.

However, MNOs have warned that there are a number of "service delivery concerns" that would need to be addressed before national roaming could take off. In addition, consumers could suffer from more "dropped calls", sapping of battery life on their devices, and unavailability of some features, including voicemail and data services, they have said. Network outages affecting one provider may also affect consumers on other networks under a national roaming scheme, they said.

MNOs' net costs from investing in aspects such as IT and networks to facilitate national roaming could be as much as £400m over 10 years, DCMS has estimated.

DCMS said that it may have to "include provisions for controlling wholesale charges for roaming voice minutes". It said it would "permit charges for roaming voice services that reflect the costs of providing these services associated with specific sites", and task Ofcom with requiring that the charges applied by operators are "determined by these costs".

Its consultation also included other options to address the problem of a lack of mobile network coverage (53-page / 665KB PDF) in some areas of the country.

One of the alternative proposals would, if introduced, require MNOs to share their network infrastructure with rival providers. The consultation anticipates sharing of both passive infrastructure such as masts and active infrastructure such as radios.

DCMS' consultation conceded that there are questions over whether some telecoms network towers can support the weight of more than one antennae used to transmit network signal and that, even if more than one can be fitted, the height and tilt of the second antennae may be positioned in a way which would not deliver the best possible signal coverage.

DCMS has said it could mandate "full radio access network (RAN) sharing". Currently Telefonica and Vodafone share RAN across their joint network. How such sharing might work on an ad hoc basis on a site-by-site basis is not specified in the DCMS consultation.

DCMS is also consulting on plans which would, if introduced, see mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) obtain a legal right to deliver services across more than one network run by MNOs. MVNOs are mobile providers such as Virgin and TalkTalk and some supermarket brands which do not own the networks they provide services over. Instead they enter into agreements with MNOs to act as host for the services they deliver.

DCMS said that it could also pursue less proscriptive reforms. It said it could instruct Ofcom to impose licensing conditions on MNOs to require them to "provide an electronic communications network that is capable of providing mobile voice and SMS electronic communications services to at least 89% of the area of the United Kingdom".

Under those plans, MNOs would be free to determine how to meet that target, whether through "mast-sharing, roaming and other innovative solutions", DCMS said.

The DCMS consultation closes on 26 November.