Tackling the blackspots – is enforced national roaming the answer?

The UK government continues to treat the telecoms industry as though there is a giant Trump-like wall between fixed and mobile technologies.
A select group of MPs has now warned that if mobile operators can’t agree by the end of 2019, they will impose enforced rural roaming. The irony of MPs not being able to sort out Brexit in three years, while giving operators three months to sort out national roaming is not lost. Pot, kettle, black.
The report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says: “Relying on competition between the mobile network operators to tackle not spots and partial not spots in coverage has not worked.” It criticised the current broadband universal service obligation as lacking ambition, made recommendations for funding fibre rollout in rural areas, and called on the government to explain how it was going to deliver universal full-fibre broadband by 2025. (See The fibre race is on, but does copper continue to give an unfair advantage?)
The report lays out some shocking statistics:

  • 8% of the UK has no mobile coverage whatsoever
  • 67% has coverage from all four mobile operators but most of these areas are urban
  • 44% of rural premises have indoor 4G coverage from all four operators, compared to 84% in urban areas.

Currently the UK’s shared rural network (SRN) plan is still with UK regulator Ofcom. The committee urges: ‘Ofcom should urgently conduct a specific review on the costs and benefits of roaming…Should a voluntary agreement between Government and MNOs not be reached by the end of 2019, the Government should instruct Ofcom to impose a rural roaming solution to tackle partial ‘not-spots.’
The fly in the ointment here is EE – yes the same EE that is owned by BT. The UK mobile industry was on the brink of agreeing rural roaming earlier this year, except they couldn’t get EE to play ball. Not only does BT/EE have broader network coverage than the others, but it is also pushing the government for investment in fibre. Is it all starting to make sense now? It is simply not in their interests for mobile networks to offer mobile broadband based on 5G (as Three UK, for example, has said it will do) or to close the gap on network coverage (this is again where the smaller operators will benefit most).
BT’s official line goes like this: mandated roaming will dilute the incentive for mobile operators to invest. It fails to mention that the whole point of service provision is to deliver ubiquitous coverage  based on wholesaling network capacity (as per the MVNO model or that of other resellers). Not only is it possible, but it’s already happening. It’s normal in other countries and not at all controversial. We also have established ways of compensating operators for roaming – so why does BT care if it is paid for use of its networks so long as it is paid? If other companies choose not to build but to pay for network access so what? The argument simply doesn’t hold water. Importantly, it has had to agree equal access to its last mile fixed-line infrastructure, so why is it trotting out this old chestnut when it comes to mobile?
More importantly, when the last mile part of BT (Openreach) is trying to snag money out of the government for fibre rollout, the mobile arm refusing to co-operate with other mobile players is, in my opinion, beyond the pale. Both are still owned by BT Group and this is extraordinary game playing by them. I can’t blame them – they’re a private business and should maximise their opportunities – in which case they shouldn’t expect the government to subsidise their fibre buildout. And if they do take the government shilling then it should come with the proviso they play ball in the mobile market. A broader point is that clearly the separation of Openreach isn’t working as intended.
In short, national roaming is a no-brainer, but needs to include any network access irrespective of technology. It is the only sensible, quick and easy, customer-centric solution and minimises overbuild, which is not economically sensible. It gives all mobile users the ability to pay for what they want and need, while paying who they want. EE should be told to get back in its (line)box. What is Ofcom waiting for?

  1. […] We believe that the £500 million the government has provided as a subsidy could easily have been funded by the UK mobile industry, with O2 alone making £2.98 billion in the six months to 30 June, with underlying profits of £919 million. (see also Tackling the blackspots – is enforced national roaming the answer?) […]