UK operators reject national roaming plan, mull other options

UK-based mobile operators rejected calls by the government to create a national roaming agreement in an effort to improve poor signal coverage in rural areas, although operators say they are working with the government by looking at various options to help address the problem of mobile black spots, or "not" spots.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed in June it was talking to EE, Vodafone UK and Three UK about allowing users in areas with poor mobile coverage to be able to roam onto other operators' networks so calls are not dropped and overall quality can be improved.

However, a report in the Financial Times said the operators had largely rejected government calls for such an agreement, primarily because they believe it would be unworkable from both a technical and legal perspective.

Operators were unable to comment on the FT report or the government discussions, which sources close to the situation described as somewhat "fluid". National roaming agreements such as the one being proposed in the UK do not exist elsewhere in Europe, and that is largely because such arrangements are technically extremely difficult.

The sources, which did not wish to be identified, also noted that planning regulations in the UK would make such arrangements extremely complex. The fact that mobile masts in the UK are typically around 10 meters shorter than elsewhere in Europe also adds to the problem.

The sources said operators are nonetheless acutely aware of the problems in some rural areas, and are actively looking at ways of resolving the issue.

Vodafone UK, for example, has launched a national programme called Rural Open Sure Signal that seeks to connect rural communities to 3G mobile coverage using femtocells--if such communities request it.

Of course proponents of Wi-Fi offload have wasted no time in pointing out the benefits of carrier Wi-Fi to plug gaps in cellular network coverage.

"What's really needed is automated connection to all available Wi-Fi--home, work and public access or amenity hotspots provided by businesses and public bodies all over the world," said David Nowicki, CMO at Devicescape.

For more:
- see this Financial Times article (sub. req.)

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