Following the broadband money

Ofcom mulls national roaming obilgation plus cash to boost 4G mobile coverage

with 2 comments

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.

Ofcom chairman Colette Bowe: roamin' in the gloamin'

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.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2011/10/24 at 08:00

2 Responses

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  1. Eliminating the concept of “roaming” from mobile communications nationally would be a great first step towards total elimination of this as a chargeable “feature” internationally. The concept of charging a swingeing premium for using an identical service in a different country would appear to be unique to telecoms – you do not pay “roaming charges” for petrol when you fill your car in a foreign country, and you are not limited to one brand of petrol in your home country whilst foreign visitors can use any brand. There is an opportunity with 4G/LTE licensing to kill this disease in the mobile telecommunications market at a stroke. It would have the added benefits of much greater infrastructure sharing, thus reducing capital expenditure for operators, improved service quality (especially for mobile data and machine to machine applications) if a user could connect to the strongest signal wherever they were, elimination of most notspots, and removal of the burden from regulators of imposing retail and wholesale price caps. This single step would be a major contributor to promoting a seamless mobile communications market in the EU and accelerating achievement of the Digital Agenda. The International Telecommunications Users Group (INTUG) has campaigned for 12 years on the topic of roaming and is now pushing for complete removal of all roaming charges.

    Nick White

    2011/10/26 at 07:26

    • I believe the European Commission’s Digital Agenda champion Neelie Kroes is pushing as hard as she can for roaming to disappear or at least come down to actual termination cost. It’s a long haul for her.

      Ian Grant

      2011/10/26 at 11:31

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