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UK national mobile roaming: A stupid idea that'll never work

Plus: Not spot rural mobile coverage sites each require NINETEEN signatures

It might be a cunning plan. Culture minister Sajid Javid’s really stupid idea of national roaming seems to have got the mobile phone networks to pull their fingers out about "not spots".

The government has tried to fund the filling in of not spots, indeed Javid’s own department stumped up £150m three years ago and has managed two cell sites in that time. Shockingly, someone familiar with the project told El Reg that the whole scheme is mired in politics, each single site requiring a whopping 19 signatures to progress.

Javid met with the mobile networks yesterday to look at what needs to be done to improve mobile coverage in the UK, and he seems to have managed the impossible - getting the networks to stop finger-pointing and agree on something: They don’t want national roaming.

We’ve covered the technological and political issues before but the mobile networks have been usually vocal about what they see as being the way forward, which means we have an idea of what they will be telling the minister.

Not that the networks deny there is a problem. When El Reg asked Vittorio Colao, the CEO of Vodafone, about national roaming, he said: “It's a solution that will not work, and it is the wrong solution for a legitimate request that is coming from consumers.”

Indeed, we know that the UK mobile infrastructure is struggling, a survey by P3 communications found that the worst networks in Europe would qualify for second place in the UK, while GWS found that one in three mobile internet tasks, and one in seven voice calls attempted on commuter train routes failed.

The government has meanwhile auctioned spectrum with no coverage requirements, or limited requirements based on competition to fill in the gaps and then used population coverage as metric, while castigating the networks over geographic coverage.

EE has been similarly forthright on national roaming and commissioned a report from Capital Economics on the effect of such a scheme. While investigation of the report’s authors shows that their expertise is very much biased towards economic effects rather than the technical aspects (such as security and battery life) it argues that national roaming could lead to a reduction in industry capital expenditure of £360-440m each year, delay the rollout of 4G by 18-24 months, and reduce GDP by 0.1-0.2 per cent.

The report also finds that national roaming would only increase coverage by 2-4 per cent of the UK's geography. Furthermore, any benefit would be wiped out by “signal locking” that would negatively impact a much larger number of people than would benefit from coverage.

Vodafone's Colao claims the "problem in the UK is very simple”, and doesn't see national roaming as part of the solution. He outlines the three problems that Vodafone faces: “One, the process for getting permits approved is too long, I think it takes 18 months to build a site, and we need a fast track process like the one that exists in several other nations.”

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