The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has urged the UK Government and industry to push for a rural roaming mechanism to improve 4G coverage and close the digital divide.
While it might sound like a good idea to bridge the economic and societal chasm created by the digital divide, it is immensely unpopular when you talk to most of the operators. It would, theoretically, improve coverage across the rural communities of the UK, though telcos have suggested it would stifle investment and deployment plans.
“Since 2002 the CLA has been campaigning for a universal pledge on digital connectivity and we’re delighted to finally see this on broadband,” said CLA Deputy President Mark Bridgeman. “While we need to wait to see how this is met, great strides have been taken towards unlocking the potential of the rural economy.
“We need to learn the lessons from the successes with broadband where government and stakeholder consensus, as well as leadership by the regulator, achieved real wins for those who live or work in the countryside. There is no reason why a similar approach should not be applied to rural 4G, starting with forcing mobile operators to adopt rural roaming.”
The idea of rural roaming is a relatively simple one; subscribers would be able to use available 4G networks irrelevant of their own provider. This effectively means telcos would have to carry rival’s traffic without seeing any monetary gain for the effort.
The telcos themselves, or at least some of them, argue the idea of rural roaming would be a negative for network investment. A situation could be created where all the telcos are sitting on the starting line, each waiting for a competitor to make a move. Such is the pressure on CAPEX budgets, no-one would want to waste a penny, and why splash out on expensive infrastructure when you can just benefit from a competitor’s expenditure.
The CLA is not an organization which will care about the financial plight of the telcos, this is a lobby group which represents rural businesses and landowners, therefore this argument will be a moot point. That said, the Government will certainly be sensitive to the investment capabilities and ambitions of the telcos, especially considering the importance this segment will play in the future success of the economy.
In an effort to counter the rural roaming plug, the industry has reportedly offered an alternative. Using Ofcom as an independent adjudicator, a marketplace will be set-up allowing the telcos to trade physical assets. If O2, for example, want to put radio equipment on an EE mast, EE must be offered the same privilege in an area of interest as payment.
The argument from the telcos will be this does not ‘penalise’ proactive deployment, creating more value in rolling out infrastructure, whilst also creating the collaborative industry which the Government is keen to foster.
Should the Government want to pursue rural roaming, the telcos will have to be dragged into the room shouting and screaming. This does not seem to be the best approach to encourage investment, and we suspect a scheme more closely aligned to telcos alternative will bear fruit.