National roaming - a bad call?

 
David Cameron with mobile phone Difficulty getting a signal?

It sounds a great idea - allow anyone finding it difficult to connect to their mobile phone network to roam to another network to make a call.

It's called national roaming but from what I'm hearing the mobile operators will fight tooth and nail to stop something they regard as impractical and counterproductive.

The idea was raised last week, with reports that the prime minister's difficulty in placing a call from Norfolk to Germany's Angela Merkel had led him to ask Culture Secretary Sajid Javid to get it sorted. And this morning in the Commons, replying to an MP who complained that foreign visitors "roaming" in his constituency got a better signal than locals, Mr Javid said that it was a very important issue. "I do want to encourage operators in the UK to go further," he said, "and I am discussing this with mobile operators and Ofcom."

So what's wrong with the idea? Just about everything, according to the operators. I've spoken to the four big players in the UK market and they are unanimous in saying that bringing in a system where users could switch seamlessly between networks, would be technically complex, harm investment and could actually produce a worse service for customers.

Three, which stands to gain most as it does not have a 2G network, is the only firm to give a cautious welcome to the idea - but an executive there tells me it is fraught with difficulties.

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The main argument advanced by the mobile operators is that this plan is essentially a form of nationalisation”

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The technical problem everyone points to is that having a mobile phone constantly hunting from network to network for a signal would put great strain on batteries. One network tells me it is also likely that there would be more dropped calls: "It will deliver a very poor customer experience." They also point to a report commissioned by Ofcom in 2010 which found that a seamless national roaming solution was "not technically feasible." (Ofcom says things have moved on since 2010).

The aim of the government is to cut the number of "notspots" - places where most of the networks do not provide coverage. As a survey we carried out in 2011 showed, there are plenty of places - in towns as well as in the countryside - where 3G coverage is patchy or non-existent.

But the operators say the current roll-out of 4G networks - and the upgrade of the 3G service - should fill in most of those gaps. One operator says that some of the masts put up in remote places are going to be economically unviable, and if companies then find they have to share them with rivals, they might just cancel their installation. They also feel that - having taken their money for spectrum in last year's 4G auction - the government cannot then force them to share it with those they outbid.

And that's the main argument advanced by the mobile operators - that this plan is essentially a form of nationalisation which would pose a severe threat to the billions of pounds' worth of investment they are undertaking in what is currently a very competitive industry. "This would be a setback for the industry and the country, " says one network's chief executive. "We need a climate that attracts investment."

Now the truth is that even if national roaming is a non-starter, the government has correctly spotted that poor mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas, is an issue that angers many voters. So, however much the operators may shout and scream, they need to find other ways of convincing everyone from the Prime Minister downwards that making a call from a Norfolk beach or up a Scottish mountain is going to get a whole lot easier.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • Comment number 268.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 267.

    Mobile phones like computers are heavily overrated, many people in Britains today live normal lives without mobile phone or computer. They still buy food, eat, reproduce and do everything else [hu]man[ity] has done for millions of years. People without computers and mobiles are not part of the brainwashed masses who do only what they are programmed to do. Long live individual free-thinkers

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 266.

    264. John_from_Hendon
    3 MINUTES AGO
    260.David H A colleague started his engineering life developing the kit. You are right of course - everything has limitations.
    ##
    The great error we (and the vendor) fall into is believing the blandishments of the marketing men.
    ##
    All part of 'confusion marketing' - ban it!
    ===
    To right... it's kind of a technology "Emperors new clothes"

  • rate this
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    Comment number 265.

    I would really like the idea of a great signal wherever, presently I am with EE, the firm that brags on tv that they have the best, well as far as I and many others are concerned their claims are just rubbish! In fact it appears there is little to choose between the suppliers, they all seem poor.
    Come on Cameron get this sorted!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 264.

    260.David H A colleague started his engineering life developing the kit. You are right of course - everything has limitations.

    But the key is to oversell technology to people who haven't the intellect to understand their own kit let alone use it.

    The great error we (and the vendor) fall into is believing the blandishments of the marketing men.

    All part of 'confusion marketing' - ban it!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 263.

    Historically government seems to put competition ahead of good service. So we get lots of choice of poor quality networks with patchy coverage. This idea is a step in the right direction.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 262.

    257. fuzzy
    2 HOURS AGO
    255.Fleagle

    Yet again people seem to want something for nothing and forget we live in a capitalist world
    ===
    Are you suggesting things would be free in a non capitalist world?
    ~~~~~
    Maybe people would not have the Me Me Me... I Want I Want I Want
    attitude and appreciate what they do have, and get of their backsides
    and use their mobile errrr mobile or get a land line..!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 261.

    258.Living_Life_4_Real "These firms need to get it. Why do we have to pay for services they can't provide?"

    The firms and their staff live in a fantasy world where their technology always works. In fact the staff are hired to ensure that they believe this!

    The reality is far from the fantasy - but that is because that is what these businesses are about (like Satellite TV)

    Oversell to fools!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 260.

    Not sure if it's intentional by the BBC.? or yet another story showing their lack of knowledge of Wireless communication.? It certainly shows the complete lack of knowledge by the majority of posters.!!
    "No" systems will have 100% geographic coverage, not even Satellite.

    Lookup "Bowman" radio system for the MOD
    troops dubbed it "Better Off With Map And Nokia"
    £billions spent, still not working.!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 259.

    The problem is that voters who live out of town believed that they were last in the queue. They now realise that for mobile connectivity and decent internet speed they are not even in the queue.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 258.

    Bring it on. I have changed phones at my expense iPhone for Samsung S5 as T-Mobile now EE (apparently Everything Everywhere?) but my office in a 4G area and 1m from the window) are not interested. These firms need to get it. Why do we have to pay for services they can't provide?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 257.

    255.Fleagle

    Yet again people seem to want something for nothing and forget we live in a capitalist world
    ===
    Are you suggesting things would be free in a non capitalist world?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 256.

    The phone companies have never had much clue what's good for them. For years, they resisted inter-network SMS because they believed they couldn't make money from it.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 255.

    Yet again people seem to want something for nothing and forget we live in a capitalist world

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 254.

    Cameron gets away with this rubbish because the BBC let him, a media climate of dishonesty where people like Cameron thrive. The same climate Rolf Harris thrived in.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 253.

    A Tory PM seeing that there are benefits in having a Nationalised phone service. I must have been dreaming and woken up in the 20th century.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 252.

    Why does anybody need a phone when on holiday? Not a problem then.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 251.

    Those phone companies that charged me £8 to be on the phone for half an hour just to cancel my 24 month contract that for some reason didn't actually end after 24 months (not sure how they are legally allowed kt get away with this). I would hate for them to have to do something that they don't want to.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 250.

    # my comment 247

    Sorry, my question was answered by me reading earlier posts! Lets have national and international roaming as standard with suppliers competing on charges. That would be real competition

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 249.

    Actually, like all forms of digital wireless communication, the signal strength indicator is actually more a representation of signal-to-noise ratio. You might have a strong signal, but if you have equally strong noise or interfering signals then the relative strength will be zero. Despite having technical expertise, I can't work out why dropped calls is never a problem in Spain like it is here.

 

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