THE BLOG

Why Britain Has A Poorer Mobile Network Than Kazakhstan

02/02/2017 13:25

At the end of this month, the consultation period on an auction for the radio waves that give your phones the internet will quietly close.

Who cares, you might be thinking. They have auctions like these every few years. And you're right, they do.

But ever since mobile phones became mainstream, there has been a quiet monopoly afoot. And things have got so bad, the country's mobile coverage is among the poorest in the world.

But before we get into that, a quick science lesson on the radio spectrum.

A brief history of radio waves

Radio waves are used for everything from TV broadcasting, air traffic control, ships, radar and of course, us and our phones.

To ensure all of those separate industries don't start stealing radio frequencies, the spectrum is tightly controlled.

Each mobile phone operator uses a mix of those frequencies to deliver their service to customers, and some 'own' more of the spectrum than others. At present BT and EE owns 42 per cent, Vodafone has 29, O2 14 and Three 15 per cent.

The more of the spectrum a company owns the better and more consistent the service they offer is. What that also means is that the ability for other mobile networks to be able to compete is greatly diminished.

In a recent study comparing 4G availability to British mobile phone users, the UK came 40th out a slew of countries which included Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Bolivia.

In another study carried out by the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), it found the current state of mobile coverage in the UK, especially in so called "not-spots" (areas with no mobile coverage) was terrible.

Some 17 million mobile phone owners have poor reception at home and a plan set out by the government to deliver 90% coverage of the country by the end of this year is now not expected to be met.

And remember that monopoly I mentioned earlier? Well, that comes into full effect here.

Mobile phone companies build their own masts, and are reluctant to share them with their competitors. That means that rather than having a network that reflects people's needs, we have infrastructure that skews in favour of business decisions instead of the public's mobile needs.

BT/EE and Vodafone own almost three quarters of the mobile phone spectrum and some of it goes unused by the networks.

The murky world of the mobile spectrum

Why has it got so bad? Well, one reason was 3G. In the early noughties, OFCOM auctioned off a large slab of the mobile spectrum which lead to an intense bidding war.

Some 13 companies spent a whopping £22.47 billion on acquiring signal to handle the data heavy transmission of photos, video and surfing the net.

But in the early 2000s, the deluge of data never happened. In fact, data usage per person took 10 years to reach a measly 500MB in 2010. Today each user churns through more than 5GB, a 1,000 per cent increase.

So coughing up the required investment to keep up with demand has been sluggish, and the UK government has been reluctant to push networks to spend money on improving the service because it feels it would kill off competition.

That has lead to a freeze in mobile coverage development since 2014, with at least 525 areas suffering from poor network coverage or none at all.

In addition to poor service, the monopoly has lead to price increases. In autumn last year, EE announced it was hiking its prices by up to 60% across standard and international calls.

So it's fair to say, consumers are getting a raw deal. But there is hope.

Make The Air Fair

A recent campaign led by Three, TalkTalk and others is campaigning to limit any one network from owning more than 30 per cent of the available spectrum.

The aim is that by restricting how much one company can own, a fairer playing field will create more competition that in turn leads to advances in coverage, speeds and most of all choice for consumers.

So what can you, as a consumer do to make sure the air waves stay fair? You can send a (pre-populated) letter to both Sharon White, CEO at Ofcom and who will have the final say in the current consultation and your local MP, to highlight your support here.

By sending them both letters you're telling the government that you want a fairer system to gives consumers more choice, drive competition and compel networks to do more to cater for customer's needs instead of profits.

As one of the world's biggest and most sophisticated economies, it's time we had a mobile network that reflects that.

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