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AH Primetime: Rather Than Simply Sharing Coverage, UK Networks Should Think Outside the Box

November 11, 2014 - Written By David Steele

The United Kingdom is a strange place to run a mobile network and as an environment, is quite different from most of continental Europe and North America. It can be summed up as with one word, “cheap.” You see, tariffs on contracts in the UK tend to be cheaper than most other places in the world but as a counterpoint, the quality of the UK networks is inferior. Government interference meddling manipulation of the industry purported to help things, often hasn’t. Most of the UK networks were only able to build out a 4G network in 2013, apart from one carrier, EE, who were allowed to refarm some of their existing spectrum in 2012 and so stole a march against the other carriers. At the 4G auctions, one carrier – it happened to be O2 – bought the coverage obligation spectrum and so is obliged to provide 98% indoor mobile broadband coverage (99% outdoor) of the entire UK population by the end of 2017. How is this metric going to be assessed? This requires a 2 Mbps download speed with 90% confidence. It doesn’t have to be over LTE, 3G will do fine.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating that a Government think tank believes that 2 Mbps is a broadband connection speed. That’s midband at best. On the other, the carrier with this obligation has made and will continue to make significant improvements to the overall quality of the network by upgrading LTE and 3G technology. This should improve overall quality. Where O2 have improved their network, things are considerably better but where they have not, it’s less encouraging – ask our very own Tom Dawson!

And then there’s the thorny issue of cross-carrier roaming. The idea here is that if your carrier does not provide a signal, your handset will be able to connect with another network’s masts and you will be able to continue your conversation or data usage. The idea here is that it will remove Britain’s “not spots,” that is, areas with limited coverage. The Government’s proposal called to allow carriers to let handsets jump from mast to mast. There would be a national coverage limit set – a carrier would only be able to participate in the scheme if its network covered a given proportion of the population. The proposal expects carriers to support in-call handovers, which represents something of a challenge.

We could also see the MVNO, Mobile Virtual Network Operators, able to establish agreements with multiple carriers and so offer customers the best of all networks depending on their location. Carriers tell us that the complexities here are enormous, but I look at the carriers my handset roams to when I’m over in the USA and wonder how these can work so brilliantly, but not in the UK?

But here’s the thing: the thinking is too narrow. The networks are still considering voice calls as being dealt with over the voice part of their network. Some of the network roaming proposals called for just the 2G networks to be shared because these were the most common masts. This completely ignores the fact that the 2G network is the oldest and the least likely to receive investment. After all, the UK carriers have just spent billions on a shiny new 4G LTE network, why would they upgrade their existing 2G network. Why aren’t the carriers considering the IoT, the Internet of Things, or handling voice over data? Oh, wait, perhaps that’s because the coverage obligation only expects a 2 Mbps download speed (no mention of upload speed) and that’s only for one carrier. If O2 have a decent data signal and another carrier does not, where’s the call ultimately going to wind up for a device that handles calling over data?

Of course, all of the UK carriers will bleat about quality of service for customers and the complexities of dividing up the bill. And how it would be the customer forced to foot the bill for the expensive systems required to co-exist with the other carriers. I’ve also seen the scaremongering concerning the “what if?” scenario: what if one network suffered an outage and all calls were routed through another network, which might cause that one to stop working? And if there was an emergency? To this, I refer my readers back to the “cheap and poor quality” argument. It reminds me of my three cats fighting over the last piece of cheese. There’s limited growth left in the UK voice calling market, but there’s competition in the data market. The carriers are fighting over a shrinking business and trying to grow their data network and keep it exclusive.

Is there a solution? Part of the problem – but only part – is that the UK has such strange and backwards laws concerning the placement of telecommunications infrastructure. Planning permissions and maximum antenna heights means that it’s difficult to get coverage into some parts of our admittedly cramped island. We’ve already seen the UK carriers sharing their infrastructure – Vodafone and O2 share sites, EE and Three also share masts. There’s an overly complicated system of payments that the carriers must give the landowner for a cellular site depending on what frequencies the masts cover, rather than a flat fee per mast.

Ultimately, the UK government should be helping the carriers make use of the new, high capacity LTE network and encourage this technology, rather than a series of backwards plans to reuse aging 2G masts. That means VoLTE (voice over LTE, a method of handling voice calls over the high speed data network) and making it easier to build or maintain existing masts. Let’s look forwards, not backwards.