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National roaming plan won’t help fill phone signal ‘notspots’

In the countryside, no one can hear you scream about no signal. epicfail23, CC BY-ND

Those words on the screen, “No signal”, are even more annoying when there’s no signal for you, but others are still connected. Wouldn’t it be better if phones simply switched to a different network to ensure everyone could connect?

This idea of national network roaming, allowing users to switch networks in a similar fashion to how phones automatically switch to foreign networks when travelling abroad, is what the government is proposing. Legislation would force UK mobile phone network operators to co-operate in an effort to eliminate the areas of no phone signal, so-called “notspots”, particularly in rural areas.

But this apparent simplicity obscures the fact that national and international roaming are quite different. In fact, national roaming is possibly the worst policy for tackling the problem.

A seamless switch is hard

International roaming allows phones to work abroad by connecting to foreign networks with whom your operator has an agreement. But once on that network your mobile stays connected, and if the signal diminishes, the connection is lost. The phone will only revert to its usual network on return to the UK.

The government’s national roaming proposals are radically different. They propose a more seamless system, whereby a phone will constantly search for the best signal, connecting to the best available as the signal strengths change. So while on the move, you might start a call while connected to your usual operator’s network, then switch to another operator’s network as the signal diminishes, and perhaps switch back, or to a third operator, as circumstances change.

This is a massively complex technical challenge, requiring a great deal of information exchange between networks – and synchronisation to ensure that calls are not dropped or data lost during the switchover. Even with a non-seamless approach, akin to international roaming, calls will drop while the phone disconnects from one network and searches for another. The constant searching for networks would also have an impact on battery life, and these technical aspects ignore another challenge: who gets billed, by whom, and for what.

Transitions could disrupt the market

The UK mobile industry simply hasn’t got this technology in place. There would need to be a slow transition, at no doubt considerable cost. The telecoms market is already highly regulated and extremely competitive, so forcing operators to invest where there is uncertain or limited demand seems highly interventionist and prescriptive.

With limited returns available for the networks, its likely costs will ultimately be passed to the subscribers, driving up prices. In practice, the competing factors of demand, supply and regulation all need to be kept in step and not treated in isolation.

There are plenty of other countries where mobile operators can generate better returns on their investments than in the UK – and we should guard against driving out their investment and expertise. In fact we’ve experienced this before – the excessive costs of UK 3G spectrum licences meant we fell behind in 3G development, something that has only now been partly reversed in the move to 4G, where the UK has again gained a leading position. Changing network-build policies and requirements in the middle of that transition is not going to be easy and could cause great disruption.

A national roaming policy could also stifle competition. At the moment operators differentiate themselves by the quality of their network – forcing them to share networks would remove a key service offering. It could also produce perverse incentives that are counter to the government’s aim – after all, if an operator can count on another’s network to fill the gaps in its own provision, where is the incentive for it to improve its own network?

Truly disconnected areas won’t be helped

A partial “notspot” is an area in which there is coverage from at least one operator’s network. Some areas are complete “notspots”, with no coverage at all. So these proposals would have no impact whatsoever on those without any connectivity from any network operator and no incentive to do anything about them.

The government argues that such national roaming is already in use elsewhere, such as in France. This is true, but again there is an important difference. The French networks had such network switching designed-in from the beginning, with the government part-funding infrastructure to connect rural areas. Trying to retrofit this capability to UK networks is a considerably more difficult challenge, with potentially unforeseen consequences.

Co-operation, no coercion

So if national roaming is not the answer, what is? The only way to tackle notspots is to build more infrastructure to provide phone signal where it’s lacking. Some operators already collaborate, for example installing their own equipment at the same physical site and sharing the costs.

If the government really wants to tackle rural notspots it should be working with local authorities and the mobile industry to relax and streamline planning laws and procedures for deploying new mobile base stations and masts. At least then people living in those rural areas, rather than those passing through, could then benefit from an improved service.

There is no question that notspots are incredibly frustrating and have a negative impact on the UK economy. But what is needed is a policy that will encourage mobile operators to tackle these areas – and national roaming is simply not the policy that will make this happen.

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