The UK government says it has finalised a “landmark deal” with the UK’s four mobile network operators to deliver improved mobile coverage for consumers across Britain.
Culture secretary Sajid Javid says he has secured legal requirements from the four mobile networks to tackle poor signal issues in so-called “partial not-spots”.
These are areas within the UK that have coverage from some but not all of the four mobile networks. Depending on the network consumers are on, they may have no coverage in these areas.
The mobile networks of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have now made the deal legally binding by accepting amended license conditions to reflect the agreement. This means that for the first time, regulator Ofcom will be able to “enforce consistent signal strength” from each of the mobile network operators “across the whole area they service”, said the government, “with huge benefits for consumers”.
Javid said: “For far too long, too many parts of the UK have regularly suffered from poor mobile coverage leaving them unable to make calls or send texts. Now at last we have progress that will give the UK the world-class mobile phone coverage it needs and deserves.
“The deal will also bring £5 billion in investment by the mobile networks into the UK’s infrastructure, which will help drive this government’s long-term economic plan.”
Under the agreement all four mobile networks have collectively agreed to make the total £5bn investment programme to improve mobile infrastructure by 2017. They have guaranteed voice and text coverage from each operator across 90 percent of the UK geographic area by 2017 - halving the areas currently blighted by patchy coverage as a result of partial not-spots, said the government.
In addition, full coverage from all four mobile operators will increase from 69 percent to 85 percent of geographic areas by 2017. The government said the deal will cut total not-spots, where there is currently no mobile coverage, by two-thirds.
The deal does not cover poor 2.5G, 3G and 4G internet data services though.
Javid originally called on the operators to allow customers to “piggy-back” on other operators' networks when they couldn't get a signal, but the operators resisted that move on the grounds that it “drained battery strength”. Many mobile customers will know that not being able to stay on a consistent type of mobile network with their operator drains battery strength too – regularly jumping between GSM, GPRS, Edge, 3G and 4G leads to flat batteries more quickly, as well as data services that don't work or which are curtailed.
The government added that Ofcom will monitor progress regularly. “The secretary of state expects the operators to meet an interim goal in 2016”, and “will be receiving updates on this”, said the government. Ofcom has also confirmed that it will consult further on the annual licence fees – the subscription fee mobile networks pay the government – this month, “taking into consideration this agreement”. The operators will no doubt be bargaining hard considering the £5 billion expenditure they have committed to.
The announcement comes at a time when the number of main mobile operators could be reduced. BT is expected to acquire EE (which includes Orange and T-Mobile), and Three is planning to take over O2. This would leave just three networks – BT, Vodafone and Three, when previously there were five (before Orange and T-Mobile partly merged their infrastructure to form EE).
As a result therefore, the coverage targets the government has set out may either be easier to track and meet, or more complicated depending on the transitional arrangements after the proposed acquisitions.