Technology

Government crackdown on mobile 'notspots'

People using mobile phones Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A fifth of the UK suffers from poor coverage, according to the government

The government plans to oblige mobile operators to improve their coverage, possibly by sharing rivals' networks.

Partial 'notspots', where there is coverage from some but not all of the mobile networks, affected a fifth of the UK, leaving people unable to make calls or send texts, it said.

One possible solution would see people transferred to rival networks when they lose signal.

But experts are not convinced this would work.

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined to sort out the issue of mobile notspots.

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Media captionCulture Secretary Sajid Javid speaking on BBC Radio Four Today programme

A series of talks held with mobile operators has so far failed to find a solution.

"It can't be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn't prepared to let that situation continue," he said.

The proposals to end the frustration - currently only aimed at improving 2G services - are as follows:

  • National roaming - phones would use another network when theirs was unavailable, similar to how roaming works when abroad
  • Infrastructure sharing - mobile networks would be able to put transmitters on each other's masts
  • Reforming virtual networks - agreements that companies such as Tesco and Virgin currently have with single operators would be extended to all four networks
  • Coverage obligation - obliging the networks to cover a certain percentage of the UK - and leaving them to decide how to do it

The government has given the industry, businesses and the public until 26 November to respond to the proposals.

Leaked letter

Mr Javid may face opposition to the move from within his own party.

The Times newspaper has reported that a leaked Whitehall letter contains a warning from the Home Secretary Theresa May that allowing people to roam between networks could compromise efforts to track criminals and terrorists.

Image copyright Getty Images/Reuters
Image caption Mr Javid's plan is reported to have prompted Theresa May to warn of security issues

"[It] could have a detrimental impact on law enforcement, security and intelligence agency access to communications data and lawful intercept," states the letter.

It adds that further research is needed to ensure the change would not make it more difficult for police to access information about calls and emails that is "crucial to keeping us safe".

The Labour Party has seized on the apparent clash.

"The detail of this policy needs careful consideration," said Harriet Harman, shadow culture secretary.

"Rather than briefing against each other as part of the ongoing Tory leadership squabble to replace David Cameron, cabinet ministers should be making clear what the impact will be on 4G services for consumers and the emergency services, as well as any possible implications for national security and the fight against serious crime."

Phone masts

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said mobile phone operators had indicated that national roaming would be bad for the consumer.

"Operators argue that roaming would shorten battery life as phones searched for the strongest signal, and pose a risk to the security of their networks," he said.

He said the operators wanted changes to planning laws and the ability to build and share more phone masts.

Matthew Howett, an analyst with research firm Ovum, also thinks that the government's preferred plan of national roaming is "a messy solution that ought to be abandoned".

"The cost, complexity and side-effects of national roaming make it such an unworkable fix that the industry thought had been dropped," he told the BBC.

"What needs to happen over the next month is collectively for the 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 added.

Making it easier for operators to put up masts quickly in a cost-effective way would also help current coverage issues, he added.

Mobile spectrum auctioned last year was well-suited to covering rural areas and operators were starting to make use of it and that too should help improve the situation, he said.

While the government's consultation is looking specifically at 2G services, a study commissioned by consumer watchdog Which indicates 3G and 4G coverage is also patchy around the UK.

The report into the state of the mobile phone network found big differences between the four operators in different parts of the country.

  • Both 3G and 4G are best in London and worst in Wales
  • Three had the best 3G coverage and Vodafone the worst, but Vodafone offered the fastest 4G speeds
  • Three was the slowest 4G network and had the worst coverage, while EE had the best 4G coverage

The report, compiled by OpenSignal, a company that crowd sources phone signal strength, looked at the 3G and 4G mobile signals of nearly 40,000 phone users of EE, 02, Three and Vodafone's networks.

It found that 4G speeds have almost halved in the past year as more people sign up to such services.

The difference between operators in different parts of the country highlighted the need for detailed information for consumers before they signed up to a particular service, said Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which.

"We're calling on providers to publish the reliability and speeds their networks actually achieve, so people can make an informed choice before signing on the dotted line," he said.

Vodafone agreed that an industry-wide standard for measuring network performance was needed.

"We've now had numerous different reports with different conclusions," said a spokesman.

All the operators are currently investing in their networks and offering more rural coverage.

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