For a small island, we have a lot of blackspots when it comes to mobile signal. It’s not limited to rural areas either, you’ll find these small dead zones in and around our major cities, too. This could soon become a thing of the past though, thanks to a new plan allowing networks to be shared.
Ministers want to make it possible for users to automatically switch to other networks when they lose signal from their current provider. A kind of ‘national roaming’ if you will. If it goes ahead will be the first scheme of its kind anywhere in the world.
Operators have previously opposed the plans citing that it reduces incentive for them to put masts in areas with low population. Culture secretary, Sajid Javid has countered this by offering to charge reduced fees for a range of radio frequencies, in return helping to pay for shared networks.
David Cameron has been pushing for increased coverage in reception for rural areas for quite some time. The matter was raised again this year after the PM reportedly lost signal in Norfolk on a number of occasions.
Some networks already have mast sharing arrangements, and there is no reason to doubt the technical feasibility of expanding such operations.
Sources from within Whitehall concede, though, “Why should an operator that has invested a significant amount in providing great coverage in a particular area be forced to share that with a competitor who may come in and offer a cheaper deal? That’s the sort of question that needs to be worked through.”
One insider at a major mobile phone company warns that national roaming “would be a disaster for consumers”, and has been rejected in other countries with good reason. “Rural Britain could be pushed back into a pre-digital dark age as no mobile company would be incentivised to invest in the latest mobile broadband communications. It would take years to work through the regulatory and legal processes as well as adding a layer of red tape for councils.”
Another source said “This is bad for customers, bad for the country as a whole and bad for the industry. This may sound easy to do but it effectively builds a network that is designed to drop calls.”
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport said “The government has made it clear that it wants to ensure the UK has world class mobile phone coverage as part of our investment in an infrastructure for the long term economic plan. We are investing up to £150 million to improve mobile phone coverage in areas where there is currently no coverage from any of the mobile network operators. Of course we want to look at what can be done in areas with poor coverage.”
Despite concerns of call dropping, and causing a ‘race to exit’ situation, whereby companies would close masts that could be served by another carrier, Mr Javid remains committed to the plans.