The Government is stepping up its bid to tackle Britain's partial mobile phone 'notspots' and has just launched a consultation that offers up several solutions.
A notspot is an area of the UK with partial mobile coverage, usually served by only one or two of the mobile operators. These are a continued cause of frustration for millions who spend hundreds of pounds on their mobile contracts but are unable to make calls, send texts or use data on their mobile phones. Right now, notspots affect 3% of UK premises and around a fifth of UK landmass.
One of the proposed solutions is to force the so-called Big Four - that's EE, O2, Three and Vodafone - to allow customers to automatically hop between networks if they can't get signal in certain areas, otherwise known as national roaming.
It's encouraging that mobile blackspots are firmly on the political agenda - even if we did have to wait for David Cameron to go on holiday to Cornwall and experience notspots first - but the Government's attempt to pull rank comes after the networks have already been given a good talking to.
So far they've already started to make significant inroads to share their infrastructure - such as the 'Project Beacon' partnership between Vodafone and O2. Ofcom analysis cited in the Government's consultation suggests that, once operators' current infrastructure sharing plans come to fruition, 13% of UK landmass would be left in a partial not-spot, and only 2% of premises - significant progress.
But, while national roaming would in theory cut out partial notspots, it could be considered a regulatory sledgehammer for a much more complex issue.
Even if the roaming plan is intended with consumers' best interests in mind, you can see why networks don't want to play nicely - it simply doesn't make business sense. Those mobile operations with the best coverage and reach - incredibly compelling differentiators in a cutthroat market - don't want to share that advantage with their rivals.
In theory, national roaming gives mobile customers - languishing in areas where not all operators offer signal to make a phone call or send a text message - more options than grappling with providers to leave contracts early.
However, national roaming only tackles partial not-spots, so it would have no impact at all on people living in UK blackspots, where no coverage is available on any network. Consumers could also see a financial knock-on effect if the Government does force national roaming through, as providers would have to ensure all the back-end systems can talk to each other and address any network security concerns.
Also, if you allow mobile networks to ride on the coat tails of others, you risk removing any incentive for underperforming networks to invest in improving their own existing infrastructure.
Allister Heath's article in the Daily Telegraph suggests severely penalising underperforming networks, if customers are forced to piggyback on another network when using roaming, with the fees given to the better network. While this could address the incentives concern, there is a risk funds are diverted away from improving networks' existing infrastructure - including the roll out of new services to rural areas such as 4G. It is this continued investment in our networks and infrastructure which would help to address coverage issues.
One answer, which the Government is also considering, could be to force more sharing of 'passive' infrastructure, for example where networks could put equipment on each other's mast sites. That way, they aren't let off the hook from investing in their own networks, but they can do so in a more cost effective way.
We know this is already being done to some extent, but additional sharing would help. It also means that there is less risk that additional costs will be passed onto the consumer.
Passive infrastructure sharing can also help in the rollout of 3G and 4G data networks, although this initial consultation is focused on being unable to call or text when and where you might need it most.
Ultimately, if mobile networks don't want to endorse the Government's option of national roaming, they will need to find ways to provide coverage to more rural areas.
In the meantime, those in partial notspots, who don't want to take the extreme step of using an international SIM card or buying a satellite phone, can only try to figure out which of the networks best covers their patch.
All of the major networks offer mobile coverage checkers on their websites, so it's always worth checking these before committing to a contract.Suggest a correction