MNOs bite back – carriers try to side-step coverage obligations
May 16, 2019 by Manuel R. Marti


Poor mobile coverage has always been troublesome for everyone. Just ask David Cameron.

When the former UK prime minister had to cut short his summer holidays due to a lack of mobile coverage, he issued a plea for better broadband for rural communities. But almost five years later, “not-spots” remain a huge concern.

Coverage is currently not a reflection of speed or performance. It simply means that a network connection can be established in a particular location.

Regulators have historically assumed that if there is a strong enough radio signal, that’s good enough. Testing hasn’t revealed how often a call was likely to connect.

That could change soon, as many countries are now bringing in tougher regulations. Coverage obligations are becoming increasingly specific because previous obligations have failed to plug rural gaps or provide true mobile broadband. 

UK regulator Ofcom, for example, is taking a more stringent approach based on received signal power. When Ofcom announced its plans to auction the 700 MHz band, it outlined obligations based on quality of service (QoS)–such as 95 per cent of calls being successful and customers being able to get 2 Mbps download speeds.

This is part of a wider commitment to improving coverage in rural areas. Ofcom is aiming to extend coverage to 140,000 new homes and to ensure that 95 per cent of the UK’s landmass receives an adequate signal by 2022. 

Governments believe 5G will be a key enabler for developing the economy in the countryside, particularly in agriculture.

Germany’s telecoms regulator expanded the coverage requirements for its 5G licences, which are currently being auctioned. Licence winners will have to provide speeds of 100 Mbps to at least 98 per cent of households in each state by the end of 2022.

Inevitably, the stronger the approach to coverage and QoS, the greater the number of base stations required– which ultimately translates into higher costs. According to PolicyTracker‘s white paper on coverage obligations, imposing Ofcom’s QoS-based requirements could increase infrastructure costs by up to a factor of five.

However, it seems mobile providers have found a way to get around this issue. The Financial Times reported this week that the UK’s four mobile network operators have agreed on a joint plan to address not-spots in rural areas.

Representatives from Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone have allegedly told the government they want to create a new company which would be responsible for putting up new masts, as well as installing the fibre connections required for broadband access.

The companies would also reportedly allow reciprocal access to existing infrastructure in a bid to improve competition in remote areas.

In exchange, the operators have asked Ofcom to remove the coverage obligations for the upcoming 700 MHz auction and reduce their annual fees. They said any discount they received on the roughly £200 million a year they currently pay would be channelled into investment in the new shared infrastructure.

So are there signs that the situation will improve? Maybe. The problem is that in the past, network operators have been fairly reluctant to share and build masts in rural areas.

It is now up to Ofcom and the UK government to decide whether the operators’ proposal promise would be enough of a guarantee that the regulator’s coverage goals will be met. Perhaps they should ask David Cameron for advice…