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Mobile roaming would help solve UK's 'not-spot' problem, say MPs

Monday, October 31st 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Mobile phone users should be able to roam on to other networks when theirs is unavailable, a group of MPs has said.

A report by the British Infrastructure Group (BIG) said mobile roaming would help eliminate partial not-spots – areas not covered by one or more mobile network.

The report, which is backed by about 90 MPs, says a third of British mobile phone users, or 17 million people, have poor or no reception at home.

It says visitors to the UK actually get better mobile coverage, as foreign SIM cards roam across the UK’s national networks in the way British SIMs roam when abroad.

A plan to introduce national roaming in the UK was rejected in 2014, with the government opting instead to put responsibility for improving the country’s mobile infrastructure in the hands of network operators.

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone said they would invest a total of £5bn over three years to cut not-spots – areas with no signal at all – by two thirds and provide reliable signal strength on 2G, 3G and 4G.

The BIG report claims mobile coverage has not improved significantly in the past two years and says key targets of the agreement are “highly unlikely” to be achieved by the December 2017 deadline.

It also points to the failure of other government schemes to improve coverage, such as the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which identified 600 potential sites for new phone masts but built only 75.

The report calls for a minimum service obligation to define consumer rights for mobile phone users and reform of the reform of the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to make it easier for providers to build new masts – proposals for the latter are included in the Digital Economy Bill currently making its way through Parliament.

'Businesses at a disadvantage'

Speaking in support of the BIG report, Arfon MP Hywel Williams said upgrading mobile infrastructure is crucial for the rural economy.

“The current situation evidently puts businesses at a disadvantage and may make potential employers think twice about investing in such areas,” he said.

“It’s vital we get an undertaking that not-spot areas are given an assurance of future investment in mobile connectivity.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: “We know how frustrating poor mobile coverage can be, which is why we made it a legal requirement for each of the mobile network operators to provide coverage to at least 90% of the UK by the end of next year.

“We are taking further action through the Digital Economy Bill currently going through Parliament, which will give the regulator Ofcom the power to issue hefty fines to mobile phone companies who fail to deliver improvements.

“We’re also making it easier and cheaper to roll out new mobile infrastructure to help tackle not-spots and deliver the connectivity people need, wherever they are in the country.”

Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile operators, said all four are working “competitively” to meet their coverage targets but do not support the idea of national roaming.

“It is not only technically difficult to do in a localised way, can deliver a poor customer experience and increases operational costs, but also is a significant disincentive to competitive network investment.”

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