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National roaming: Filling in the UK's mobile coverage gaps

Plans to let mobile users "roam" on to other networks have met with resistance, but may be part of the solution to "notspots"

wireless antenna

Inside the enterprise: Businesses have long been frustrated by the sometimes patchy coverage of mobile phone networks.

For companies providing national services, being able to communicate wherever they are is vital. Over the last few years, workers operating away from the office have come to rely heavily on cellular technologies.

But gaps in mobile coverage or "notspots" persist, and not just in rural areas. One solution being put forward by the government is to allow domestic roaming between networks. If a phone can't find a signal on its own network, it will roam on to another. A further suggested solution is to encourage more sharing of transmitter sites, by the mobile companies.

National roaming is a facility that is already open to tourists and visitors to the UK, as Culture Secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Radio 5 Live this week. And it does seem strange that visitors, potentially, have access to a better signal than UK-based businesses or consumers.

It is also used in other markets, notably the US, where cellphone users can roam on to the country's smaller domestic networks. But the coverage map, and charging model, for the US cellphone networks is different to that of the European ones. 

Here, though, the mobile networks are less than keen on national roaming, suggesting it will not solve the issue of coverage blackspots. It could, the operators say, even worsen the user experience, giving less reliable signals and reduce phones' battery life. The networks would prefer other solutions, such as making it easier to put up new masts.

Businesses are likely to grasp at any changes that will improve coverage. "On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, after all, why should an SMB care who connects its devices to the network?", says Rob Bamforth, an analyst at market watcher Quocirca.

In practice national roaming has some real limitations. As proposed, roaming will not cover data, just 2G voice calls. Whilst improving voice coverage will be welcomed, businesses increasingly depend on data services.

National roaming, according to Matthew Howett, practice leader for regulation at IT analyst house Ovum, could even make data services less reliable, or lock users out of them altogether. "What needs to happen is for the mobile operators to work with government to come up with an agreeable fix that addresses not only poor voice coverage, but also data too," he says.

Forcing networks to allow 2G voice roaming is at best a temporary solution, experts suggest. Instead, it might make more sense for the networks to focus on boosting their infrastructure, or adding more coverage in the 800MHz spectrum, which works well in more rural areas.

Or, as Quocirca's Bamforth suggests, operators, and business users, should be thinking more of "wireless extending the fixed network, rather than replacing it". Small cells and femto cells, some operated by networks, some by businesses and communities, could be part of the answer.

"A lot of the focus of mobile operators has been fixed mobile substitution to get you off a landline onto an independent mobile via its own network," he says.

Integrating fixed and mobile networks could well be the answer to coverage issues, and it could improve the business case of rural broadband connections too.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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