back to article Reg mobile man: National roaming plan? Oh, you've GOT to be joking

It seems the government’s solution to poor mobile phone coverage in the UK is to mandate a system that leads to less mobile phone coverage. They have got this backwards. As my colleague Andrew Orlowski has noted, it’s a typical Ministry of Fun reaction to a problem of the government’s own making. If national roaming is …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Reg mobile man: National roaming plan? Oh, you've GOT be joking

    Isn't there some grammatical error with that headline?

    1. frank ly

      Re: Grammar

      There should be a comma after the "Oh" and a semicolon (instead of the comma) after "", then a fullstop at the end of the sentence.

      Well spotted.

      1. Alister

        Re: Grammar

        There should be a comma after the "Oh" and a semicolon (instead of the comma) after "", then a fullstop at the end of the sentence.

        No, because then you've changed the meaning of the paragraph. As it stands, it is fine, in my view. It is two separate sentences, the first a question, the second a rhetorical question used as a statement, and addressed specifically to

        National roaming plan?

        Oh, you've got to be joking!

        1. Mr_Pitiful

          Re: Grammar

          Where is the 'to' in that sentence?

  2. Pen-y-gors

    "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

    Our rural Wales/Scotland/England correspondant writes: what's 4G?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

      Well Oblivion at Alton Towers is reported to hit 5G. So a fifth less than that.


    2. Franco

      Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

      4G in Glasgow is great, the strongest signal is in the largest car park. The M8 over the Kingston Bridge.

      Sadly as far as the networks are concerned, outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh and their airports, and some coverage in Dundee and Aberdeen depending on operator, the rest of Scotland is rural. The BBC reported in April of this year that around 25% of Scotland barely gets a 2G signal.

      1. Alister

        Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

        The BBC reported in April of this year that around 25% of Scotland barely gets a 2G signal.

        Whilst this is true, and I have some sympathy for the residents, the geographical constraints mean that the only viable alternative is that nearly every hill top gets decorated with a phone mast. Is that really what people in the area, as well as visiting tourists, want to see?

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

          I don't believe it's beyond human ingenuity to camouflage / hide / disguise RF antennas.

          May it's beyond the UK networks though. They manage to do it fairly easily in other countries.

          1. Alister

            Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

            Maybe it's beyond the UK networks though. They manage to do it fairly easily in other countries.

            It depends where the masts are though, I'm sure you'll agree. If you start with a wooded hilltop, then fine, you build a pretend tree - and I've seen some and they're quite good, but if you have a bare hillside, with nothing but a few rock outcrops and maybe some heather, there's nothing there that you can disguise a mast as, that won't look out of place.

            1. Throatwobbler Mangrove

              Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

              right - and also, it's presumably the 25% of Scotland's territory where practically no-one lives. It's not 25% of the population of Scotland that only gets a 2G signal most of the day.

              1. Bassey

                Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

                "it's presumably the 25% of Scotland's territory where practically no-one lives"

                I don't get that? 4G is mobile, not fixed. Who gives a shit what the coverage is like where I live? I have broadband and WiFi where I live. All of the Mobile Operators are advertising to us that 4G allows us to "Get things done" on the move. So then, why advertise "90% population coverage"? The two aren't exactly polar opposites but they certainly aren't the same thing.

                If 4G is meant to allow me to watch telly whilst I'm out and about then I want to know what the chances are of there being a sufficient signal whilst I am out and about. If I'm trying to watch the football by a river (as Mr Bacon tells me I should be able to in the ad) I really couldn't care less what the signal is like back at home - I want to know there is a signal by the river.

                Broadband = population coverage

                Mobile = geographic coverage

                1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Franco

          Re: "No one looked at 4G before there were enough places where there was a signal."

          Good luck finding a hill top that doesn't have a fecking wind turbine on it!

  3. sorry, what?
    Thumb Up

    An excellent piece...

    Of opinion.

    That said, I think it is an interesting article that certainly got me thinking. Shame all those government types don't understand or read about technology.*

    * Citation Needed. Oh, no, actually not - that's just opinion too :)

  4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    National roaming can work

    If roaming charges are high enough to encourage continued development. This is how O2 in Germany used it while it was building on its network.

    1. croxed

      Re: National roaming can work

      If the roaming charges are high enough it makes the business case for a new site much easier to put together. This plan could spark a raft of new small cell deployments to pick up all the available traffic.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: National roaming can work

        Yes, another argument that make national roaming a *good* idea - in contrast to the two blinkered opinion pieces presented on this site.

        Network operators might start putting up masts where they have zero permanently resident subscribers but a lot of passing traffic due to the revenue from roaming that it will generate. This is an issue I have come across when trying to encourage the siting of a mast in a high throughput area with no resident customers.

  5. DaLo

    " If another network has coverage and your customers can use that, the incentive goes away"

    Apart from the fact that you (as an MNO) will have to pay for each of your customers to use that other provider. So you either decide to provide a mast, pay the upfront costs but save the regular subscriber access costs to a third party (whilst also getting income form another MNOs customers) or you just settle with paying the regular costs to give your subscribers access.

    If Vodafone only have 2,000 subscribers in an area (out of 8,000 total mobile users) and decide that providing a mast is not economical then they might actually decide to provide one if they also have access to a fee from all the other 6,000 users as well. Therefore it might provide an incentive for new masts in more rural areas as you can make some money out of them, rather than it being just a capital outlay.

    1. No Quarter

      You are right, and this point seems to been completely ignored by the media. The Register normally does a better job of not jumping on the bandwagon.

      If the (possibly mandated) cost to the telco of paying another telco to provide a service to its customers is great enough then there is plenty of incentive to maintain and create masts.

      1. Richard 81

        Oh my how they'll complain though.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Where was this piece written?

    In my part of the world, in an area of 200 sq miles, there are about 1500 people living. Exactly how much does the writer think that the big phone companies are "competing" for 1500 people? The only reason there are masts here at all is because it was mandated. Some networks don't bother with any service at all from some masts. Even in the main village, you really need three networks to get service all through the mile or so of the village. To people like us, where the rules of the city simply don't apply, the gov's idea sounds just wonderful.

    As I understood the proposal, it's not a universal concept, just areas like our which are badly provisioned by the magic "market".

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Where was this piece written?

      It's not just the 1500 people living there. These phones are mobile, not residential landlines. They also need to provide service for all the people that don't live there but travel there or travel through there.

      These networks that sell you phones that provide maps for when you are lost, but don't actually provide a network signal so you can download the map tiles.

  7. ratfox

    So maybe…

    A large, country-wide infrastructure should be done by the government? I guess the problem is that all telcos are hated, so the government wanted the people to hate someone else.

    …Maybe the government could cover rural areas with its own antennas, then let the telcos use it at a reduced, national roaming-like cost?

    1. xyz Silver badge

      Re: So maybe…

      Oh Christ, you mean get the gov's old mukka BT in to do some techy stuff....we're doomed!

  8. Otto is a bear.

    Never let logic get in the way of policy

    You should know that by now.

    I doubt you'll get rid of the planning side of it for small sites unless the paranoia about the health risks coupled with base stations has gone away. I remember all the nonsense around this that led to the Stewart Report.

    Mothers up in arms about a mast on the school roof, oblivious of the fact that actual radiation on the school site would be lower than anywhere else in the transmitter coverage area. A wag at the time calculated that it would take around 2 1/2 years to cook a chicken sitting in front of the transmitter, always assuming you could persuade it to sit still that long.

    Why not just let providers enter into agreements with local authorities to provide rural connections as joint ventures.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Never let logic get in the way of policy

      health risks coupled with base stations

      let me back-you-up on that

      they're worried about a 25 watt GSM/LTE transmitter stuck ten metres up in the air, 'poisoning the kids'

      but will happily accept a 10 milliwatt to 2 watt transmitter in their pocket.

      Why is the handset 10 milliwatts to 2 watts? - when it's near a base-station it sends low power, when the base stations are all far away, then the handset ramps to maximum power! maybe not cooking a chicken but subtly sterilizing/pulse-deforming dna - who knows?

      someone just needs to crowd-fund an €5/£4 LED/beeping RF environmental detector, and get the citizens to teach themselves that a BTS is relatively safe, but a handset should be treated with respect. It might co-incidentally scare them away from PLT & other hazards...

  9. Tom 38

    Competition drives build-out

    There are three rings in the Venn diagram of mobile network development: Coverage, Price and Service.

    Only because that makes you a pretty diagram that demonstrates your flawed point. With inter network roaming, there is also a cost associated with having your subscribers on someone else's AP.

    The absolute biggest driver of commercial change is cost. We can set the cost that the free-loading network has to pay if their users roam onto a different network at whatever level we like. Since this cost is arbitrary, we would have implicit control of the market.

    So, the article posits that roaming would lead to not enough base stations being built. By raising the roaming cost to networks, we would be able to introduce stimulus to those freeloading networks to build/share APs.

    The author would have you believe that the only market is a free market, but there is no such thing as a free market - all markets have regulation and levers to control them.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's also the consideration that nowhere is it written in stone that those three factors ("rings") have to remain the same over time from a regulatory viewpoint. Once coverage for 95%+ of the population is basically a wash for any given technology generation, does it make sense for the consumer's choice to effectively be limited by the historical accident of which network happens to have the best coverage for an individual house/street/village? Perhaps it does indeed make more sense to in effect "retire" the coverage ring by mandating national roaming, but in doing so reinforce the price ring and prevent backsliding on coverage by setting roaming pricing suitably high.

  10. Ben Liddicott

    What makes you think it's an accident?

    So we have:

    * Consumers want (or ought to want) industry to compete to improve quality.

    * As any fule no, industry doesn't like competing, they would much rather cooperate which allows them to keep nice high margins for delivering a poor service

    * Industry certainly doesn't really want to build loads of sites - they would rather share.

    * Currently not allowed to share as it is anticompetitive.

    * Now government is telling them they ***must*** share...

    Government ignorance? Or do they know exactly what they are doing? Economics is one of the things taught in PPE you know, along with politics.

    Look for campaign donations, relatives on Telco boards etc...

    OTOH, if they are sincere, we could have the best of both worlds with mandatory roaming with a mandatory high termination charge - which they aren't allowed to pass directly to the subscriber (i.e. can only charge the same as a non-roamed call/data). That retains the incentive to build while providing covering. Indeed, the higher the roaming charge, the more incentive to build! O2 could make a nice lot of money building stations in the Highlands for Vodafone users to roam to!

  11. Chris 3

    But what the network cannot do is roll out services when it does not have the network in place.

    ... Except for all the VNOs like Tesco who do just that.

  12. localzuk Silver badge

    History disagrees

    If what you say is true, surely there shouldn't be any not-spots, as the telcos would be busy rolling out more coverage to compete in these "borderline" areas? But they haven't. In this area of 20,000 people, there are are large areas of the town which don't have coverage from a number of providers. Leave the town, even by a half mile, and you struggle to get any signal at all. The telcos certainly aren't all competing to roll out masts down here...

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not on the side of the consumer then...

    So you like the fact that foreign visitors get better coverage - thanks to roaming- than the mainstay of the MNOs income, i.e. the people with UK phone contracts? Ever noticed how much better your phone coverage is when you travel in Europe with your UK mobile phone? Is this because the MNOs have built better networks in other countries? Well in some places, perhaps, but largely it's because you benefit from roaming and your phone will pretty much use any available network abroad. But at home if there's no service from your chosen UK service provider at a particular spot, tough; even if the other three networks are putting in a stonking great signal, the only way your phone is going to be allowed to use it is if you make an emergency 112 or 999 call, otherwise they are not available to you, not at any price, not if you are a UK customer.

    So if you are out in the sticks, away from a centre of population, then in order to guarantee you mobile service of any kind all the networks need to build base stations covering that location since we don't know which network you might have chosen to sign up to before you wandered off in to the wilderness. Four times the spectrum, four times the energy to run, four times the installation and maintenance costs, four times the backhaul...

    Maybe it will have some small effect on one aspect of competition between the MNOs, but national roaming is common sense in an age where people have come to depend on mobile communications in all aspects of their daily lives.

    1. Tony Haines

      Re: Not on the side of the consumer then...

      Would it be worth rural folks getting their phone contract from the continent then?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not on the side of the consumer then...

        "Would it be worth rural folks getting their phone contract from the continent then?"

        In an earlier incarnation of this discussion it was pointed out that there are UK SIMs available which already do cross-network roaming in the UK.

        I think AAISP's name was mentioned. May be wrong, and/or there may be others.

        They're not exactly mass market, but they do have some interesting ideas.

    2. Terry Barnes

      Re: Not on the side of the consumer then...

      "Ever noticed how much better your phone coverage is when you travel in Europe with your UK mobile phone?"

      Ever noticed how expensive it is?

  14. Confused Vorlon

    National Roaming + sensible roaming fee = different story

    National roaming doesn't necessarily make coverage 'somebody else's problem'.

    If operators are mandated to offer national roaming (without charging extra for roaming calls), and if the roaming fee is set suitably high, then you create a sensible market.

    Operator 1 doesn't quite have a case for rolling out coverage in notspotX, but if they're going to get roaming fees, then suddenly the business plan looks better.

    Operator 2 was considering building a mast at tinyNotspotY, but they already have a mast from Operator 1, so it make sense to just pay the roaming fee

    we have two (arguably) good properties here

    1) greater incentive for at least one operator to serve blackspots

    2) shared cost model for low-population areas where it really doesn't make sense to have coverage from multiple networks.

    Property 1 does increase the overall infrastructure cost (which ultimately the customer has to pay) - but it delivers wider coverage

    Property 2 should decrease overall infrastructure cost (by encouraging some sharing)

    the critical thing is to set the roaming fee correctly. That would be a tricky one for Ofcom.

  15. cantankerous swineherd

    sorry, nanny says no, because terrorism.

  16. Daz555

    "2. Eliminate planning permission for building small sites."

    No thanks. I prefer that the networks are jumping through a few well organised hoops before chucking up a metal monstrosity outside my front window. Make the process better, sure. Scrap it? Nope.

    1. YorksinOaks
      Black Helicopters

      You did read this before jumping 2-footed onto your soapbox? The word 'small' perhaps?

      Metal monstrousity, no. 7L small box yes. Same as an alarm box. The public are often just uninformed, and unfortunately MPs are by and large just bog-standard members of the public.

      No more masts! Where's my coverage? No more masts! Where's my coverage?

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Last time I was in the UK, I can use my card in most ATMs. And most don't charge me extra for it.

    I assume a similar arrangement for mobile operators could also work. It's all a question of ensuring those networks which use another provider's hardware pay for this in some way.

    And far from reducing competition as the author claims, it could in fact increase competition. Because it would enable smaller operators to enter the national market without the expense of having to put their own hardware in areas with very few subscribers. For example, those banking with smaller regional banks in the UK can still pull out money through most ATMs from any major bank.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ATMs

      Errm........and then you go to a Motorway service station (C.f. Rural) and pay 2quid to get your cash out.

      If that's your model, please keep it.

  18. David Roberts

    Bring it on

    I sometimes wonder where these article writers live and which networks they use.

    As I have stated in a similar thread, I recently spent some time in the Inner Hebrides and with two mobile phones, one on O2 and the other on 3, we spent most of the time on "Emergency Calls Only".

    i.e. there was mobile coverage but not for us.

    I live most of my life in a small town. Therefore I go for the best deal in the small town.

    For most of the population (95%+?) there is a choice of network at their home location because of population coverage targets by the major networks.

    As stated, we have phones on two networks. They both work.

    One of the reasons for two networks is because it increases the chance of coverage when we travel, so purchasing behaviour might change if there was national roaming, but that is by no means certain. The purchasing decision is derive by the best deal available at the time of renewal.

    What we seem to be hearing in these articles is that it may be what the customer wants, it may be achievable (because foreigners can roam) but the Telcos don't want to do it.

    Well, make them!

    Could be one thing to influence who I vote for at the next election.

    Edit: just let us use the existing mobile network. This would be an enormous step forward. Then worry about the Telcos not wanting to build any more masts because they might have to share them.

  19. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Or less base stations...

    "The national roaming scheme is a good way to get fewer base stations installed"

    Unless there is some financial penalty as others have alluded to, I could easily see network operators not replacing or not upgrading base stations in areas where Someone Else also provides cover. If nation roaming were to be implemented in line with the Link system for cash machines then there is little incentive to build out or even to maintain a network, especially in high population density area.

    Maybe "free" roaming could be limited to phone calls and SMS only, maybe through in some low speed data so at least the users get a service but the networks still need to build out if the want to stop churn or steal other operators customers.

    1. David Beck


      Limit the roaming to 2G services.

      No network is building out 2G anyway so no fewer base stations.

      Since churn is created by poor service at home where wifi is available offering 2G roaming slows churn.

      The networks tell us that data is the only way they can make money, this lets them prove it by taking voice and SMS out of the picture.

      Make the 2G network only a utility.

  20. Alan Edwards

    How about...

    How about separating the physical network from the carriers?

    Get someone like Crown Castle to combine all four existing separate networks into a single network, which the carriers pay for access to. Running the oily bits becomes Somebody Else's Problem, leaving the operators free to concentrate on services and customer service, and removes one of the reasons for your customers to churn.

    Then give the physical network operator a landmass coverage target and uptime and performance SLAs, with financial penalties for missing either.

    You'll probably have to have rules that stop one of the operators trying to become AT&T by buying all their competitors - no one operator can have more than 50% of the customers maybe?

    1. YorksinOaks

      Re: How about...

      If it takes 19 signatures to get a MIP site installed (run by Crown Castle competitor Arqiva as I am sure you know), imagine how many your solution would need and the compensation needed?

      EE value their site at XXX because it is a well engineered bottom 15m of a 30m mast. Vodafone say that their site is worth YYY because it covers a key corporate. 3 fought for 2 years to build their site to stop paying O2 or Orange roaming costs and object to having only amortised 30% of the build costs. Company A or Council B demands compensation for 3 years lost rental on a 5 year lease for their office roof.

      Whatever happens, locals revolt as someone loses coverage as the shared site is another half a mile away. Sites significantly decrease. This is what happens on a weekly basis as Vodafone and O2 trade sites for their Cornerstone shared sites and Former T-Mobile or Orange sites get shut down to become EE/MBNL sites.

  21. Dave Harvey

    I'm really starting to get irrated by The Register's approach here

    Normally, I agree 100% with what the reg hacks say, but in this case, they are:

    1) Only looking at things through urban eyes (how can we have street light cells when some areas don't even have street lights)

    2) Saying only what the telcos want them to say (ad nauseam!)

    A simple bit of regulation could really make this work:

    a) Mandate roaming as suggested (incoming and outgoing)

    b) Define a significant (few ppm) "roaming charge", which the Telcos have to pay to the other operator when their customers use another network, which they are not allowed to pass on to the customer.

    Hey presto, the telcos have a marvellous "incentive" not only to provide good enough coverage to prevent their own customers roaming (saving costs), but also to go and put in coverage in not-spots, where they could earn a good income from others roaming to them. Overall, for the whole industry, the roaming costs would ne neutral (so no need to change customer rates), but they would give all the right incentives!

    1. YorksinOaks

      Re: I'm really starting to get irrated by The Register's approach here

      Which is it: "the telcos have a marvellous "incentive"... where they could earn a good income from others " or "the roaming costs would be neutral (so no need to change customer rates)". It cannot be both.

      Business Case 101:

      Cost of new Site £50K

      Roaming revenue of new not-spot site - cost of roaming onto other 'new sites' = £0.

      Net Cash -£50K

      So with no new net revenue, why would the operators add new sites? They would sit on their current asset base, 50 grand to the good. The best that you can hope for is that existing rural single-operator sites become 'multi-operator' but there will be no new coverage deployed in the hunt for roaming revenue. This is either MIP or "son/daughter of MIP" but the key is to get MIP sorted which will close down the NotSpots.

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