Ofcom mulls national roaming obilgation plus cash to boost 4G mobile coverage
Whichever mobile operator wins government funding for rural coverage following the upcoming 4G spectrum auction may have to allow the others’ customers free access to it.
In addition to the national roaming obligation, Ofcom is also considering asking government to set aside money from the auction to pay to increase present mobile coverage.
An Ofcom spokesman said the regulator is presently considering, rather than consulting on the national roaming issue. Ofcom says it has the power to impose such an undertaking unilaterally, but would like to bring the government along with its decision. It says the government has sovereign powers over how the money from the auction will be spent.
This has emerged from correspondence between Ofcom and the Communications Consumer Panel seen by Br0kenTeleph0n3.
Chancellor George Osborne has promised £150m to expand mobile coverage, but hasn’t said where that might come from. Some analysts believe the 4G auction will raise around £4bn, and according to Br0kenTeleph0n3’s sums, there is about £74.2m unallocated in BDUK’s £530m budget for rural broadband projects.
Communications Consumer Panel (CCP) chairman Bob Warner wrote to Ofcom in July expressing concern that the auction, now delayed until late 2012, will not result in mobile coverage beyond the present 2G footprint, which covers about 90% of the population.
He said that basic voice coverage issues of 10 years ago still existed. This was because mobile operators, faced with the need to recover the £22.4bn they paid in 3G licence fees, none of which went into network building, had switched their priorities to rolling out 3G in more populated areas.
“We do not believe that the current coverage on 2G meets the legitimate aspirations of consumers or the needs of small businesses,” Warner wrote.
Mobile operators and others had told the CCP that current 2G coverage was at its “commercially economic limit” and was unlikely to be “significantly extended” following the 4G auction, he warned Ofcom.
Ofcom chairman Colette Bowe replied in September that Ofcom shared the CCP’s assessment.
“Whilst we agree with you that something needs to be done to improve mobile coverage in rural areas, we believe such action needs to be proportionate and implemented in the most cost effective and efficient manner possible,” Bowe replied.
She agreed that if only one network received funding to extend 2G mobile coverage, it was unlikely that others would follow. “Therefore without national roaming, this coverage would be unlikely to be available to the customers of all mobile networks.
“We are therefore indeed giving careful consideration to the need for some form of roaming obligation on any network funded to provide coverage beyond today’s 2G coverage,” she replied.
The exchange of letters is a sequel to Penrith & The Border MP Rory Stewart’s Commons unanimous motion to boost mobile coverage from 90% to 98% of the population. The CCP estimated the cost of adding the required 1,400 extra base stations at £250m, which could come from the auction fees, it said.
Bowe said the figures had to be confirmed.