Mobile operators plan rural coverage improvements to fend off national roaming

(Image credit: Shutterstock) (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The UK’s four major mobile operators are working together on a plan to improve rural coverage that would remove the spectre of a national roaming network for good.

The Telegraph says the chief executives of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have proposed a system whereby they would share radio equipment in the most rural parts of the country and a site ‘trading’ system for underserved locations.

This system would see one operator install its own radio kit on a rival’s site in exchange for allowing access to one of its own masts. The idea is that this would reduce deployment costs and accelerate deployment without disincentivising network investment.

Rural coverage

Regulator Ofcom could be asked to be a third-party adjudicator and all operators would be bound by a contractual agreement.

TechRadar Pro understands talks are ongoing, with the Telegraph claiming a plan could be presented to the government within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, EE’s CEO Marc Allera has voiced his support for a measure to improve the situation in rural areas.

According to Ofcom, only 41 per cent of rural premises receive what could be classified as a “good” mobile signal and is proposing coverage obligations for one of the packages of 700MHz spectrum due to be auctioned in spring 2020.

Although EE has committed to delivering 4G to 95 per cent of the UK’s landmass by 2020, areas with coverage from all four major operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – are less common. Ofcom’s most recent figures suggest 57 per cent of the UK’s geographic area is completely covered, while seven per cent is uncovered by any operator at all.

This has led to MPs and other organisations to call for a national roaming network that would allow customers of one operator to switch to another network if they can’t get a signal. This would effectively see operators carrying their rival’s traffic.

Such a move would be widely opposed, with Vodafone stating that operators would simply stop investing in network infrastructure as a result.

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.