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Government, mobile operators clash over mobile not-spots

While the government wants to enforce network sharing to improve service, suppliers say that sharing won’t solve the problems of poor mobile coverage in some areas.

The government today launched a white paper as part of a campaign to tackle the problem of 'not-spots' in mobile coverage in the UK.

Not-spots are areas where it is difficult or impossible to get mobile phone coverage. According to this latest Government report, Tackling Partial Not-Spots in Mobile Phone Coveragethe government plans to order mobile operators to improve their coverage, even if that means sharing rivals' networks. Ofcom believes that not-spots affect as much as a fifth of the mobile network in the UK.

"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 culture secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC.

The government's proposals are currently only aimed at improving 2G services and focus on four areas:

  • National roaming: Currently when roaming abroad a network will automatically switch to another network when the 'home' network is unavailable.  The proposal is for a similar system in this country.
  • Infrastructure sharing: Mobile networks would be able to put transmitters on each other's masts but the operators complain that this is difficult, if not impossible, because of core differences in technology.
  • Reforming virtual networks: Agreements that companies such as Tesco and Virgin currently have with single operators would be extended to all four networks.
  • Coverage obligation: Obliging the networks to cover a certain percentage of the UK - and leaving them to decide how to do it.

Labour's shadow secretary for culture, media, and sport, Harriet Harman, said the government should be cautious before it rushed out any new legislation, arguing that cabinet ministers should be making it clear exactly, "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".

Vodafone was one of the first suppliers to criticise the proposals, saying in a statement that it and the other UK mobile operators had already, "told the government directly on a number of occasions, national roaming will not provide the people of the UK with better quality voice and mobile internet coverage".

The statement went on to say the proposals would, "make coverage and quality significantly worse from the customer's perspective, with a much higher risk of dropped calls, lower battery life, and negative impact on services such as voicemail".

The shortened battery life, the companies believe, will be because phones will spend much longer than they currently do looking for a signal when one is not available.

In common with other suppliers, Vodafone criticised the government for not taking into account "the massive investment" the suppliers were already spending on trying to improve mobile services.