We all love our mobile phones, for the younger generation (including myself), internet access and communication on the move are something we have grown up to expect. Anyone who has broken a phone and doesn’t have a spare knows how difficult it can be to get through a day without being able to quickly send that hilarious tweet that just came to mind or instagram a picture of the food you are about to eat. By the end of that awful day, you are curled up on a sofa, depressed and disconnected from the world.
Living in North Wales, mobile phone coverage is actually a common discussion which is something big city people really won’t be used to. There are many dead zones here for mobile phone networks, areas where you get little or no signal at all – 3G outside of a town? You can forget that right now. Signal in every room in your house? Definitely not.
So wade in the mighty UK Government who this week announced that they are to step in and shake up the mobile networks. However in typical fashion, they have gone about it the wrong way. After the mobile networks failed to reach an agreement on their own (after Culture Secretary Sajid Javid asked them very nicely), the UK Government is now looking into legal changes that would force/allow network operators to provide better coverage.
First things first, lets make it absolutely clear, Javid’s vision of eliminating the “notspot” is purely idealistic and will never happen in the real world. Mobile telecommunications and the technology it is built on top of is incredibly complex and has its drawbacks like everything else. Mobile phone masts can only cover a finite area of land with their signal (mainly due to the curvature of the earth), so unless people are prepared to see such masts everywhere (and as a general rule, people HATE them) the ideal of blanket coverage is an insane one. With that being said, let’s dig into the Governments suggestions and see if any of them will improve things.
1. National Roaming
This is the main solution being reported in the media. The idea that mobile devices in the UK could roam between all of the mobile networks (free of charge unlike abroad) using whichever has the strongest signal at that time. This on the surface sounds like a great plan, better coverage for customers and less infrastructure investment for networks.
However, lets think of what other effects that would have. Firstly, from the network operators point of view, it removes a huge amount of competition and also makes the distribution of infrastructure and operating costs unfair. EE demonstrated at the start of 2014 that being first to the 4G party can really drive growth and increase customer numbers after they launched their 4G network months in advanced of any other network. I know the current plans only include 2G services but it does bring up an interesting point. If I’m O2 and EE already blanket cover a huge area with 2/3/4G – why would we bother building out own 2/34G network in the city when we can just use EE’s for free? That in itself causes another problem, networking congestion. Essentially if all customers in one area are using the same network, there is bound to be a slowdown of the service on that network, just like it you have too many people connected to WiFi in your home.
Then lets think about customers, so you live in an area where you actually have no coverage at all. No network will be willing to pay for the network infrastructure in your area as essentially they have no guaranteed income from it since they could build it then you actually pay a different network. Then there is battery life, anyone who lives in an area with limited service will be aware that your phone constantly searching for a usable network drains battery. If your phone is always scanning for the best network to use, that is bound to have an effect on your phones performance.
2. Infrastructure Sharing
This on the surface of it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Mobile phone operators share their masts, allowing other operators to place their equipment on the same mast. Sounds like a win-win, cheaper deployment of services and less masts that we have to look at. This plan however favours the smaller networks much more than the big and would essentially allow the networks to all cheaply offer “the same” service in the same areas. Will the operators be happy with this, probably not. The process of putting up masts is incredibly complex as each one requires various forms of planning permission, which of course costs money. If other networks can place their equipment on your expensive mast for free, that makes building new masts less appealing to networks as in doing so they essentially help their rivals. Lets not forget, having coverage where others don’t, especially in the small town scenario is a powerful business and advertising tool.
3. Reforming Virtual Networks
Virtual networks such as Virgin Media, Tesco and Giff Gaff run on top of one of the other mobile operators networks. The suggestion is that these should be expanded so they can run on any network too. I suspect, although not familiar with the details, that this would in fact be an incredibly complex thing to do. Those virtual networks pay a fee to use someone else’s network, how that money would be divided between multiple networks I feel would be a nightmare to distribute fairly. That being said, if all networks are made to offer national roaming, then it would make sense that this would automatically happen since the underlying infrastructure changes would be there. Since only a small percentage of the population use virtual operators, this is a pretty small category.
4. Coverage Obligation
The final suggestion is forcing mobile operators in law to cover a certain percentage of the UK with their network, but leaving the decision of the areas they cover up to them. This won’t improve things, no mobile operator will cover any area that they feel will be unprofitable so essentially although this may force networks to cover more of the country, I think they will all choose to cover the same areas, especially if option 2 is also put into practise.
So that begs another question, is there another way?
Well, as I started this message and I will say it again, there is no easy solution. Mobile phone operators are all big businesses, they exist purely to make money and realistically the small number of customers who come across so called “notspots” are not a financially viable user group to please. However, there are several points I feel they should consider:
1. Public Funding
Mobile phone operators won’t do anything that isn’t profitable, short and sweet. So if the Government really want them to improve service, then just like with rural broadband I feel the tax payer should pay for a proportion of it. Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) set aside £530 million of public funds to speed up the fibre broadband roll out. Similar funds for mobile telecommunications could go a long way to improving coverage.
2. New Technologies
Apple demonstrated with the new iPhone 6 that LTE over WiFi with a seamless handover to the mobile network is possible. This technology could provide a huge boost to people who get little or not coverage in their own homes.
3. Merging of Mobile Networks
We have already seen the huge merger of T-Mobile and Orange to create EE and I know from experience that O2 and Vodafone already share masts in some areas to improve coverage. Thinking of other markets, are there many others that have 4 big players? Not really. Although they have failed to reach an agreement on their own, private deals made between networks about sharing resources in a way not enforced in law would be overall a better solution.
4. Reducing Spectrum Pricing
There is no denying that the mobile phone operators spent a fortune buying up the 4G spectrum, they are essentially spending money on nothing but permission to use the air. Think of how that vast quantity of money could have been better spent, on improving coverage.
5. You want it? You pay for it.
This one maybe makes more sense for small communities rather than individuals, but if there is no coverage in an area and no network is willing to pay to build a mast in the area then it would be an interesting idea to crowdsource the funding from the people in the area and in doing so have some agreement that would force the chosen operator to cover the area.
6. A Mandatory Service Level
People who purchase phone contracts and then find their service is not up to standard should be able to walk away from a contract early without penalty (even after the current 14 day test period), this becomes especially important if you move home for example.
7. Regulated Pricing
The UK government could limit the amounts mobile operators can charge customers depending on coverage in their area. For example I pay O2 for a 4G tariff, even though there is no 4G in my area. I feel that since I am not getting the level of service I pay for, in comparison to say someone else on the same tariff in a big city I should pay less but that is not the case. This has big benefits for customers meaning cheaper bills, and it drives mobile networks to improve coverage so they can get more money.
Addressing other concerns in the media:
– It was suggested that network sharing makes it more difficult to track criminals and terrorists and whilst this may be true, with the networks working together ultimately I don’t see this being a huge issue as far as data collection is concerned.
– I heard on Radio 1 this morning someone complaining they couldn’t make an emergency call on another network if their network had no coverage. This is incorrect, dialling 999 on a mobile phone in the UK will pass the outgoing call to any available network – the only issue is when you are in a completely dead zone in terms of coverage.
– Enabling such changes will also be an issue. Swapping between networks dynamically would require software changes to the firmware on mobile devices meaning they have to be updated.