UK operators pour cold water on MPs' demands for telecoms reform

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UK operators have dismissed claims by MPs they are failing on their promises to expand infrastructure, as well as their proposals for "national roaming".

The British Infrastructure Group (BIG), a UK parliamentary group led by MP Grant Shapps, has urged the UK government to urgently request an update from UK mobile operators on their progress on tackling poor signal issues in so-called ‘partial not-spots’.

The four main UK operators agreed to a £5 billion joint investment programme in 2014 to guarantee voice and text coverage across 90 per cent of the UK by 2017, and full coverage across 85 per cent.

BIG claimed in a new report that EE, O2, Vodafone and Three are failing these targets, with one third of mobile phone users, or 17 million people, across the UK reporting poor or no reception at home.

[Read more: Only half of UK consumers can access LTE, report finds]

Operators called the findings into question. Vodafone UK said in a statement: “We have already surpassed the 90 percent figure as referred to in the report. Our 4G network currently covers 95 per cent of the UK population but we always want to improve on that.”

Mobile UK, a trade association of UK operators, said operators remained committed to the project. “In the immediate future, the mobile operators are working competitively to meet the commitment of 90 percent geographic voice coverage by the end of 2017, and thus meet their new licence condition.”

BIG said it wants an update by December 2016 from operators on the state of their network coverage. “The British public deserves to be assured that this agreement was a good call,” it said in the report.

BIG has also urged the UK government to consider a system of "macro notspot" roaming in areas with poor signal, where operators agree to share masts in areas of limited coverage. It drew a parallel with overseas visitors roaming between networks, and tuning into the best available signal in remote areas.

Mobile UK rejected the idea out of hand. “Consumers get a very good deal from our competitive market and it remains essential that the UK has the right incentives in place to promote continuing investment in network coverage, as we move towards 5G and the mobile ‘internet of things’,” it said.

“For this reason, Mobile UK does not support the use of ‘national roaming’; it is not only technically difficult to do in a localised way, can deliver a poor customer experience and increase operational costs, but also is a significant disincentive to competitive network investment.”

The group also said it wants passage of the Digital Economy Bill, which covers reform of the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and proposes to incentivise investment in digital infrastructure, to be expedited.

On this, Mobile UK agreed. “The Government is delivering on its commitment to reform planning law in England and the Electronic Communications Code, measures that will make it more straightforward and viable to invest in the expansion of network coverage. These delayed reforms will now provide limited benefit in terms of the 2017 target but will be vital for continuing network development thereafter,” it said.