UK cellcos considering voluntary passive mast sharing to boost rural coverage?

24 Sep 2014

British mobile network operators are said to be in talks with the government over a possible deal to share access to each other’s masts with a view to bolstering coverage in rural areas. According to the Telegraph, EE, O2 UK, Vodafone UK and Hutchison 3G UK (Three) are considering the measures as a means to avoid the imposition of a ‘national roaming’ regime, which it has been suggested would be more economically and technically challenging.

As previously reported by CommsUpdate, earlier this month cellcos rejected proposals by the UK government under which they would be required to share networks for ‘national roaming’. As per the government’s proposals it had suggested that mobile customers be able to connect to infrastructure belonging to any operator in those areas where their own carrier has no coverage. It is understood that digital economy minister Ed Vaizey had written to cellcos with a view to having a national roaming agreements in place by the start of 2015, only for telecoms executives to claim the plans were unworkable in the timeframe set out, while also noting that they were undesirable in principle.

Despite the cellco’s having lobbied against the national roaming scheme, claiming that alongside the technical issues that it would severely undermine investments made in radio spectrum and in differentiating their services in the market, the state has refused to withdraw it as a policy option. Moreover, recent advice from sector regulator Ofcom is said to have convinced the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that national roaming would indeed be technically possible. Ofcom has, however, previously voiced concerns over the potential impact of introducing national roaming, with it saying in a policy document last year that implementing such plans ‘would be both risky and highly complex’. Among the possible issues, the regulator suggested that brining in national roaming could prompt an increase in prices for customers, harm network resilience, and, for technical reasons, coverage could actually deteriorate in some areas. Operators meanwhile have previously proposed other options to bolster coverage in rural areas, such as the relaxing of planning restrictions to allow masts up to 25 metres high, around ten metres higher than most existing masts.

Now though, a compromise appear possible which could both enhance rural coverage while also protecting mobile operators’ investments, with passive mast sharing arrangements allowing rival operators to install their own radio equipment and antenna on a mast, radically cutting the cost of boosting coverage. Operators do, in fact, already have some commercial passive mast sharing deals already, having inked these with a view to cutting costs; EE and Three currently share sites, as do O2 UK and Vodafone UK. The pressure now is for all four to voluntarily share masts across the country though, with an unnamed Whitehall source cited as saying: ‘The operators are engaging constructively at the moment. We want them to do this voluntarily.’