Analysis The government flagged up the biggest shake-up in mobile regulation for 25 years yesterday. Tories who ridiculed Ed Miliband’s intervention in the energy market might need to remove the large wooden beam from their field of vision first.
Four major policy options are suggested in the Ministry of Fun’s rural mobile consultation paper (PDF) – which comes with two surprises. The first of these is that the remit of the exercise is broader than anyone thought. It isn’t just about curing the odd mobile phone “dead zone” in remote rural areas, like, say, Chipping Norton. DCMS has set about tackling “partial not-spots”. And what’s a “partial not-spot”? It’s anywhere where you don’t get coverage from all four MNOs (mobile network operators).
The second surprise is that the government wants to shake up the wholesale mobile market. The UK today has a lively MVNO market – with 40 virtual operators. Some are household names with millions of customers, such as Virgin Mobile and Tesco. The debt-encrusted operators found MVNOs a useful additional income stream after paying billions for their 3G licences, and millions of punters are happy to pay less for their phone service even if it means being (slightly) a second class mobile citizen. But that might change.
Currently, an MNO signs an exclusivity agreement with the MVNO, so they can manage usage and costs. The Ministry of Fun wants virtual MNOs (MVNOs) to be able to pick and choose from their wholesaler in real time – scavenging the big four for the best signal they can find. According the Ministry’s “independent technical advisers” [who they? – Ed.] this is feasible “in as little to 3-6 months” for each network. So it should all be operational “in 15 months”, DCMS reckons.
But there are existing long-term contracts consider. One MNO told us that the proposal was too risky to be justifiable, and if forced to design its contracts for MO-MVNOs*, would not renew its existing MVNO agreements, and not strike any more. If all the MNOs are thinking the same thing, then Virgin and Tesco, with over 5 million punters between them, will be making their exit strategies.
As for improving coverage – there are really three options mooted (with the fourth, “do nothing”, included for completeness). One is to share infrastructure more efficiently – not just mast locations but full RAN (radio access network) sharing.
Hutch (3) and EE have shared sites for several years via the joint holding company MBNL, while O2 and Vodafone are following suit with CTIL. It eases planning costs, but operators have been wary of making such deals. After France’s No 2 (Vivendi’s SFR) and No 3 (Bouygues) signed a rural RAN-sharing deal in January, the WSJ noted that “it can take years to reap the full savings from decommissioning overlapping antennas”.
It may happen voluntarily anyway with the next major wave of investment 5G, but probably not before.
As for national roaming, the Ministry of Fun does acknowledge the difficulties. It cites the 2010 Ofcom paper, which says that seamless national roaming – where your call is handed over from (say) Vodafone to EE as you move along – is complex and expensive to implement, and reduces operator differentiation. It also hammers battery life, with the handset constantly looking for a better signal across any network it can find. That means a (roughly) tenfold increase in power consumption required for radio operators. (Note that this is only part of the overall power drain of a handset – displays and background data processing also consumer power – but it’s not a trivial part).
DCMS also acknowledges another difficulty: a handset would lose its weaker 3G or 4G signal after it glommed onto a stronger 2G signal. The user would lose their data connection – which is perhaps not what they wanted to happen.
Conspicuous by its absence is any regulatory framework governing the building of better infrastructure. Operators we spoke to are unanimous in calling for a revision of the Electronics Communications Code, or ECC. This document regulates agreements between property owner and infrastructure owner.
Give us better signal, but – ugh – no unsightly mobile masts
Well-heeled rural communities vigorously fight the installation of equipment that improves their mobile communications – then complain that their mobile coverage is inadequate.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Prime Minister Cameron has a home in the Cotswolds – as Reg readers point out, Oxfordshire NIMBYs have been successful in ensuring coverage resembles a former Eastern European Soviet satellite. Do you want decent mobile coverage or do you want a village untainted by modern transmission equipment? Pick one of two. ®
Rethink Research noted the irony of a government launching into a major shakeup of 2G just as the rest of the world is discussing 5G. Indeed much of what’s in the Ministry of Fun’s paper – such as RAN sharing or real-time scavenging – is already being discussed by 5G radio boffins. Along with new specs like WebRTC, this suggests a very different marketplace.
The engineers are envisaging how IP networks will handle voice in 2024 - and what kinds of devices will provide voice services 10 years from now. But the UK was the last leading economy to do 4G. Perhaps it is determined to be last with 5G, too. ®
* Multi-operator Mobile Virtual Network Operators