The much maligned ‘national roaming’ was the headline-grabbing proposal from the Government’s legislation consultation. It was described by EE as a ‘flawed concept’ that would ‘deteriorate network reliability for tens of millions across the UK’ and ‘risk prices rising’. Vodafone was equally damning in its criticism stating that: ‘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.’O2 was also vocal in its criticism, saying: ‘National roaming will worsen the experience people have when using their phones and undermine future investment in mobile infrastructure in the UK.’ Only Three didn’t publically release a statement criticising this proposal.
With all the focus on ‘national roaming’, few of the other suggestions have got much airing. ‘Infrastructure sharing’ would involve networks putting transmitters on each other’s masts, and the suggestion appears to be a pretty viable alternative to ‘national roaming’. What’s particularly strange about the ‘infrastructure sharing’ proposal being ignored is that Vodafone specifically mentioned that it had: ‘already submitted a number of alternative proposals for a strategic partnership between industry and government, which would deliver better outcomes more effectively. These proposals included further site sharing by operators.’ If these suggestions were significantly different from the ‘infrastructure sharing’ that was put forward by the Government it would be interesting to know how. The competition aspect of this proposal is open for criticism but the technical or service argument is not really there, it seems strange that the Government didn’t focus more on it.
Forcing operators to cover a certain percentage of the UK but not specifying the location or ‘coverage obligation’ is another proposal where the criticism centres on the competitive implications. This policy would create an interesting new dynamic with regards to network infrastructure investment. Rather than only rolling out coverage in the profitable areas, operators would be forced to take chances investing in areas of potential rather than banking on places where they expect a return on investment. It’s a strange suggestion for the networks to discuss publically because no network wants to give off the impression that its network service is only driven by finance.
‘Reform of the virtual networks’
It’s become harder and harder for virtual networks to compete as the money in the mobile market has shifted to data from voice and SMS. Previous administrations have championed these organisations as offering healthy competition. Using MVNOs to improve mobile coverage is a genuinely innovative idea; the difficult task would be getting the networks to agree to it. It was significant that the Government name-checked both Tesco and Virgin in its description of the potential change to the law. These are two MVNOs that have large alternative revenue streams and established relationships with the consumer. In other words, they’re the only type of MVNO capable of challenging the four major networks. This change in the law would also present another possibility; a foot up in the MVNO arena of a major quad player such as Sky or BT. Imagine how attractive the mobile market would look for these players if they could guarantee the best coverage in the country. That said, would the Government be keen on BSKYB adding mobile to its media empire? It’s fair to say there might be some objections.
Nobody mention the MiP
The public confusion surrounding ‘not spots’ and partial ‘not spots’ is not something that can be easily remedied. The wider media frequently muddies the two or blurs the differences. This has been of particular benefit to the Government because it has meant that few have pointed out its own shoddy record of delivering results when it comes to ‘poor mobile coverage’. Top of the list is the Mobile Infrastructure Project which has failed to deliver in the task of filling in signal for the UKs not spots. All of the networks are signed on to put transmitters on the new masts as part of the project which meaning ‘partial not spots’ wouldn’t be an issue, the trouble is the Government hasn’t built barely any sites. It also hide one point that the politicians rarely like to acknowledge; improving mobile coverage normally involves building more masts.
Having a letter from one of your colleagues leaked to the press that criticises one of your proposals isn’t a good start for any consultation process. What is key to the process is how the Government manages the situation going forward. The networks have all come out swinging at the legislation which, despite the Home Office’s grievances, has had a reasonably positive public reaction. Here’s a look at the most important points for the DCMS to address as the things move forward:
Providing more realistic solutions behind the scenes
Both sides know that they will have to work together and the public sparring may bear little resemblance from the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. Surely the government will not press ahead with ‘national roaming’, a policy so clearly riddled with flaws. Being seen to be playing hardball with the networks has worked reasonably well as a short-term PR stunt, but it seems unlikely to be a tactic the government adopts permanently. It’s easy to announce a decision to ‘improve poor mobile coverage’, it’s a lot harder to deliver something tangible in relation to it.
Getting networks to co-operate… or not
If the Government can get the networks on board, the speed of the process will increase exponentially. However, there’s a reasonable argument that suggests that the improvements the Government are after can only be achieved without operator involvement or influence. Either way, the focus on ‘national roaming’ has made the government look pretty foolish in the eyes of the industry, it will need some co-operation from these people, which means there must be a change somewhere along the line.
Setting a realistic timeframe
The biggest problem for the Government when it came to the mobile infrastructure project was the timeframe the government placed on it; it was completely unrealistic and only caused problems. Once the consultation ends on 26 November the Government needs to make sure that it sets a time frame that is achievable. This might be difficult, particularly with the approach of a general election, but it is vital that it is done.