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Greg Clark MP: Right to roam

Greg_clark_mp Greg Clark MP explains the reasoning behind a Bill he has launched this week urging mobile phone companies to share masts and to allow users to 'roam'.

Think back to your last holiday overseas. The chances are that you took your mobile phone with you. Can you remember the number of times you went out of range of coverage? In fact, you probably never went out of range at all – but instead were seamlessly transferred from one network to another, depending on which had the strongest signal. A process everyone knows is called ‘roaming’.

Think back to your last journey around Britain. How many times during a train or car journey outside London did a conversation you tried to have on a mobile phone get cut off because the signal failed? Last Friday in the course of travelling the 15 miles between Tunbridge Wells and the county town of Maidstone – both within 40 miles of London – I passed through 5 separate areas of no network coverage.

The reason? Mobile phone companies do not allow roaming within the UK and do not share their masts with each other. What is automatic for people on holiday is blocked when they’re at home.

It’s not as if mobile phone coverage is blanket. At present only 81% of districts are served by at least 4 mobile phone companies. In Wales, the figure is 47%. And under the requirements for 3G, only 80% of the population must be covered by a network, meaning that 1 in 5 of the population will miss out. It is the people who live in more rural areas who will lose out. For example, 3G coverage in Wales is only 33%. No wonder the Government’s own rural Tsar said rural England had worse coverage for mobile phones than parts of India or Malawi.

My Bill is very simple. It does two things:

The first is to encourage mobile phone operators to give their customers the right to roam within the UK. In other words, if they are out of range of their own network, they should be able to use the signal of another network if one is available. What is automatic on holiday should be automatic at home.

The second thing my Bill does is to encourage mobile phone companies to share their masts. It is now technically straightforward for one mast to be used by different operators. 

This Bill unashamedly benefits the consumer, in four ways:

Firstly, roaming and mast sharing would transform mobile phone coverage. Fewer phone conversations would be cut off, and fewer parts of the country would be in coverage blackspots.

Secondly, it would boost rural communities. Currently there may not be enough customers of any one network to justify erecting a mast in remote areas of Britain. But when customers of all networks could access – and pay for – that signal, the economics are transformed.

Thirdly, in urban areas, it reduces the need for masts, which in many cases are ugly and intrusive. Some places have as many as four separate masts next to each other. Under my Bill, only one would be needed.

Fourthly, safety is improved. While 999 calls can be made regardless of the network – showing, incidentally, that roaming is technically possible – even in an emergency calls home or to loved ones will be blocked, even if coverage is available on another network. Women in particular are entitled to enjoy the security that comes from always being able to call.

Indeed the safety implications go beyond that. During major accidents or incidents like storms which may affect mobile phone reception, the fact that roaming is blocked is actually hampering rescue efforts. Indeed one emergency planning officer who contacted me, revealed that rescue teams are having to buy foreign SIM cards which enable them to roam between all UK networks.

An illustration of the problem is given in the minutes of the West Sussex Public Protection Committee which noted that:

"A key lesson was from the train derailment at Grayrigg in February 2007 – which claimed one life and caused 22 injuries. The train’s communication system was dependent upon the Orange network, but this network was disrupted because its cables ran alongside the railway line where the accident had occurred. This highlighted the need to have broader mobile phone coverage".

It is time to act now before further tragedies are made worse by poor communications.

What are the arguments against it? 

Well not the technical capability – which is proved by international roaming and the ability to make 999 calls. There is the idea that rival networks will want to compete on the basis of network coverage. But since 3G licence holders are required to offer at least 80% coverage, it is already recognised that there are obligations to offer wide coverage. Why should rural communities be exempt?

Some people might argue that there needs to be a return on the investment in networks that operators have made. That is obviously true – but in interconnecting with other networks, the mast operator would charge a fee, and the bigger the network the more they would benefit.

Finally it might be said that such an agreement between networks would breach competition law. Not so – a proposed roaming relationship between T Mobile and O2 to extend coverage in Wales was cleared by the EU competition authorities in 2003. Sadly, however, the deal was never consummated.

There is a close analogy to what this Bill proposes – that of ATM machines. For the most part, one ATM card works in virtually every ATM machine in the country – no matter who owns it. It means that Barclays customers in a village with a Natwest branch can obtain cash and vice versa. It is good for consumers and good for communities.

My Bill does not seek – at this stage – to compel, but to encourage. Legislation is not always the best way to effect change. But I hope that expressions of support for the Bill will serve as a signal to the operators, to the regulatory authorities and to the government.


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