The UK Government has launched an investigation in “various legislative proposals” that could enable national roaming (or an alternative) in the UK, as part of a plan “to eliminate the poor mobile coverage that blights a fifth of the UK”.
In a statement, it was said that talks have taken place with operators in recent months “in an attempt to find a voluntary solution”, and this is expected to continue while the consultation runs.
But the prospect of a mandated solution may help focus the mind of those involved.
The concept of national roaming in the UK is not new – reports from June said that such a scheme was being mulled by the operators.
Subsequently, it was said that operators were struggling to meet the government’s timetable, and that carving the network in the way intended is no easy proposition – partially explaining while national roaming is not common elsewhere.
In addition to national roaming, the consultation will look at options including infrastructure sharing; reforming “virtual networks” such as Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile so they can access more than one host network; and coverage obligations, “leaving it open for them to decide how to best achieve this outcome”.
Another question mark is over how the proposal will impact investment, with the ability to compete based on coverage effectively removed from the operator’s armoury.
IDC analyst John Delaney tweeted that “the main problem with national roaming is that it would create an incentive for mobile operators to limit investment in network improvement.”
And a study by OpenSignal found that while national roaming will ease the coverage issue, it is not in itself a cure – because in some remote areas, there is no coverage from any operator (and with mandated roaming removing the incentive to invest).
According to a statement from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, it is the “partial not-spots”, where there is coverage from some but not all mobile networks, which it is targeting.
“This consultation will complement the work industry is doing and allow the Government to hear from the wider telecoms sector, businesses and the public. Businesses have been clear about the importance of mobile phones and improved coverage will help deliver jobs and economic security,” said culture secretary Sajid Javid.
The consultation closes on 26 November 2014.