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Government national roaming plans 'unworkable' say UK networks

Operators have hit back at culture secretary Sajid Javid's plans to fight so-called "notspots", which could see operators obliged to let customers roam onto rival networks.

The government wants to improve phone signal in hard-to-reach areas, but networks aren't impressed. Shutterstock

The UK's biggest operators have railed against proposed government plans to battle "notspots" -- parts of the country that suffer from poor or non-existent signal.

Culture secretary Sajid Javid says that he's failed to find a solution having held talks with the UK's biggest operators, and has proposed new measures that could see those companies obliged to let customers roam onto each others networks, in the same way that your phone latches onto foreign networks when you travel abroad.

Dubbed "national roaming", the proposals suggest networks should be able to put transceivers on each others' masts. They also suggest that virtual networks like Tesco Mobile or Virgin Mobile (which piggyback on major operators' networks) should have the deals they currently have with individual operators extended to cover the big four -- EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. The government has given the mobile industry until 26 November to respond to proposals, but they haven't waited nearly that long.

Vodafone said, "National roaming will not provide the people of the UK with better quality voice and mobile Internet coverage," going on to warn, "In fact, it would make coverage and quality significantly worse from the customer's perspective, with a much higher risk of dropped calls, lower battery life and negative impact on services such as voicemail."

Technical troubles

One expert speaking to CNET suggested a technical limitation that could hamper plans for national roaming, because the government's proposals focus solely on voice data, not 3G or 4G. "The battery life issue is a bit of a red herring," said John Delaney, mobile analyst at IDC. "But there'll need to be a system in place that stops you, for example, roaming from a mediocre 4G connection to a really excellent 2G connection, which would stop your data session. It's not that it can't be done, but it's quite tricky."

Delaney noted though that he thought technical obstacles were "less important" than the economic ramifications, which could provide "reverse incentives" for networks, who may be unwilling to upgrade their technology if rivals can also make use of it.

Delaney emphasised however that network operators need to suggest solutions instead of just opposing plans.

"Just to say 'we're against national roaming' is not sufficient," Delaney said. "It smacks of complacency."

Terrorism fears

Opposition for the plans is also coming from within the government. The Times newspaper claims to have seen a letter from home secretary Theresa May, in which she warns Javid that the plans could make it harder to track terrorists. Javid brushed those fears aside in an interview on Radio 4, The Guardian reports, with the culture secretary saying, "The important thing is that this consultation is about hearing from everyone to see what issues there may or may not be. But let me make one thing absolutely clear: when it comes to law enforcement, this government is extremely proud of its track record and we would never do anything that would put that into jeopardy."

Javid also reiterated his determination to end signal black spots. "I would prefer a voluntary solution from the mobile network operators," Javid reportedly said, "But what the government is setting out today, through this consultation, and what it's saying is we won't hesitate to take mandated action."

Networks say no

O2 was vocal in its opposition of the proposals. "National roaming is a regulatory solution that will worsen the experience people have when using their phones," a spokesperson for the network said, "and undermine future investment in mobile infrastructure in the UK."

"We're keenly aware that there are some parts of the UK where customers still can't get adequate signal levels," EE said in a statement sent to CNET. "What we don't want to do is implement the flawed concept of national roaming. This will deteriorate network reliability for tens of millions across the UK, plus it also risks prices rising, which customers understandably won't tolerate."

Several industry onlookers have also decried the plans. "Whilst national roaming could certainly help people suffering in not-spot areas, a far more considered approach is needed than telling the networks they need to learn how to share," Ernest Doku, uSwitch analyst said.

"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. However, continued investment in our network infrastructure would help to address this issue," Doku said, also saying that national roaming would remove any incentive for under-performing operators to invest in making their networks better.