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Concerns over national mobile roaming security risks unfounded, says ISPA chair

Thursday, November 27th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Fears that mobile roaming could put national security at risk have been dismissed by the head of the body representing the UK internet industry.

James Blessing, chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), said fears that allowing users to switch onto other networks when their own isn't available would make them harder to find are unfounded.

Mr Blessing’s comments come as a government consultation on how to eradicate partial “not-spots” – areas where there is little or no mobile signal – closed last night.

The consultation set out four ideas to eliminate poor coverage, including national roaming, infrastructure sharing, reforming virtual networks and obliging each network to cover a certain percentage of the country.

Critics have voiced concerns that allowing phones to switch between networks could make it more difficult for police and security services to track suspects.

But Mr Blessing told Cable.co.uk that this concern was unfounded, as the network a user had roamed on to would be able to find them.

He said: “National roaming basically says to the networks, ‘hold on a second, if you’ve not got coverage I will allow you to use my network here because you can’t get your primary network’.

“The concern is, while you’re now not using your home network, your home network won’t know where you are.

“So basically the visiting network knows where you are.”

He said all it would mean is that anyone trying to track a user might have to contact two providers rather than one – their home network, then possibly the network they had roamed onto.

“They know which visiting network you’re currently using, at which point you go to the visiting network and go, ‘where are they?’, and they go, ‘they’re here’. So it’s really a big security problem because it’s two phone calls involved?

“At which point you go, ‘I’m sorry, what’s the problem here? Is this actually really a problem or is it just because you don’t understand that just because someone’s roamed onto a different network that they’ve moved?’

“Okay, you can’t see them on that network, but the other network has got to know where they are otherwise you can’t talk to them.

“So when people say it’s a security issue, we’re saying no it’s not. If it’s a security issue you’ve come up with something I don’t know about, or you’ve missed something.

“Because actually it’s in the network it’s roamed on to’s best interests to know it’s roamed on to them because they get to charge someone for the privilege.”

Mr Blessing said the only real issue would be a commercial one, with networks having to “sit down and work out” the value of their reciprocal arrangements.

He said: “Go and sit in a room with some lawyers and come up with some numbers. At the end of the day, some numbers will emerge and everyone will end up not happy but actually ahead of the day. And the end users will get to that point.

“The big problem is it does disincetivise building out. And you get to the point of, ‘you build’, ‘no you build’, and you end up sitting there saying, ‘guys, somebody just build it’.

“So there are other issues but there needs to be some sort of commitment by somebody to do something, and we’ve got quite a vibrant and competitive market and the last thing you want to do is disturb it too much.

“But there is a case to say that in certain areas maybe some co-operation between people is a good thing to get that last mile coverage sorted out.”

The consultation, which was launched at the start of the November, comes after the four major mobile networks, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, had already been involved in talks to find a voluntary solution.

Three previously told Cable.co.uk that the government’s plans pose technical challenges which could cause customers to experience some problems.

Launching the consultation at the start of November, culture secretary Sajid Javid said: “This consultation will complement the work industry is doing and allow the government to hear from the wider telecoms sector, businesses and the public.”

After last night’s closure of the consultation, the government will look at the responses and respond in due course.

Cable.co.uk approached the Mobile Operators Association, but they declined to comment.

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