Will 4G Providers Be Forced to Share Networks?

Today the Culture Secretary outlined plans to increase mobile network coverage across the UK, including forcing mobile operators to share their networks. The proposals are in response to research which shows that 20% of the UK does not have mobile coverage.

4GEE in 200 Towns

According to Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, “It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue.” The new proposals are intended to improve mobile network coverage across the UK and focus on 2G coverage, although 4G networks will be impacted.

The proposals put forward today include a number of possible measures:

National roaming

In the same way that international roaming is used when mobile users travel abroad, national roaming would allow users to be automatically transferred to a rival network when they lose signal on their own network. Operators are concerned that national roaming would reduce battery life on mobile handsets as they continually searched for the strongest signal, and that it would pose a risk to the security of their networks. They believe it is an unworkable situation, with Matthew Howett, an analyst with research firm Ovum, stating that “The cost, complexity and side-effects of national roaming make it such an unworkable fix that the industry thought had been dropped.”  

Infrastructure sharing

To reduce the costs and time involved in putting up phone masts, the government proposes to enable different network providers to put transmitters on each other’s masts. This sharing of infrastructure is already occurring between some 4G providers.

MVNO transformation

MVNOs, or mobile virtual network operators, currently have an agreement to use the network of a single provider, such as EE or Vodafone. The proposals indicate that MVNOs such as Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile would be expected to switch to an agreement with all four major network providers.

Some politicians have concerns over the proposals, with the Home Secretary suggesting that they could create a security risk, preventing mobile tracking of criminals if they were able to roam between networks.

Labour’s shadow culture secretary believes that, “The detail of this policy needs careful consideration. Rather than briefing against each other as part of the ongoing Tory leadership squabble to replace David Cameron, cabinet ministers should be making clear what the impact will be on 4G services for consumers and the emergency services, as well as any possible implications for national security and the fight against serious crime.”

An alternative solution would be coverage obligations, where networks would commit to providing coverage to a certain percentage of the UK by a specified date. The government would then leave it to the networks to decide how best to fulfil their obligations. The major 4G network providers already have these obligations in place.

It looks unlikely that 4G providers will be forced to share networks with their rivals any time soon, but the major mobile operators do need to sit down with the government to come up with a workable solution to providing effective voice and data network coverage to more of the UK.