A plan by ministers to improve rural mobile coverage by asking mobile operators to share networks has been rejected by the companies, who said it couldn't be done so quickly.
The government hoped to introduce a national roaming strategy before next year's general election whereby the mobile operators would agree to support roaming on each other's networks allowing customers to use their phones even in remote areas.
Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and creative industries, had hoped to have the plan in place by next year, but it seems the phone companies had rejected it.
According to the Financial Times, Vaizey wrote to mobile operators to seek agreement on national roaming plans by the start of next year but the operators rejected the idea as unworkable, arguing that the time scale being requested by Vaizey was too short.
Operators also see the quality of their networks as a competitive advantage and so might be reluctant to share. However, research by telecoms regulator Ofcom shows call quality can vary significantly between operators and between urban and rural areas.
Mobile coverage in rural areas has been a focus of criticism by ministers — including the prime minister, David Cameron — as they have struggled to get good reception on their travels around the UK. Paradoxically, while disagreements by vendors and governments have limited roaming between countries, overseas roaming has been adopted in many areas of the world.
Networks operators said they continue to talk to government about the issue. A spokesperson for Three was optimistic, and said: "We've invested heavily to bring coverage to around 98 percent of the population. We support the principle of expanding coverage to address areas less well served and are in discussions with government about the most effective means to deliver that."
A spokesperson for Vodafone pointed out that the company had no objections to sharing masts and network infrastructure with other vendors. The debate over national roaming is ongoing, the spokesperson pointed out.