IT Pro is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

National roaming: Filling in the UK's mobile coverage gaps

Plans to let mobile users "roam" on to other networks have met with resistance, but may be part of the solution to "notspots"

wireless antenna

Inside the enterprise: Businesses have long been frustrated by the sometimes patchy coverage of mobile phone networks.

For companies providing national services, being able to communicate wherever they are is vital. Over the last few years, workers operating away from the office have come to rely heavily on cellular technologies.

But gaps in mobile coverage or "notspots" persist, and not just in rural areas. One solution being put forward by the government is to allow domestic roaming between networks. If a phone can't find a signal on its own network, it will roam on to another. A further suggested solution is to encourage more sharing of transmitter sites, by the mobile companies.

National roaming is a facility that is already open to tourists and visitors to the UK, as Culture Secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Radio 5 Live this week. And it does seem strange that visitors, potentially, have access to a better signal than UK-based businesses or consumers.

It is also used in other markets, notably the US, where cellphone users can roam on to the country's smaller domestic networks. But the coverage map, and charging model, for the US cellphone networks is different to that of the European ones. 

Here, though, the mobile networks are less than keen on national roaming, suggesting it will not solve the issue of coverage blackspots. It could, the operators say, even worsen the user experience, giving less reliable signals and reduce phones' battery life. The networks would prefer other solutions, such as making it easier to put up new masts.

Businesses are likely to grasp at any changes that will improve coverage. "On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, after all, why should an SMB care who connects its devices to the network?", says Rob Bamforth, an analyst at market watcher Quocirca.

In practice national roaming has some real limitations. As proposed, roaming will not cover data, just 2G voice calls. Whilst improving voice coverage will be welcomed, businesses increasingly depend on data services.

National roaming, according to Matthew Howett, practice leader for regulation at IT analyst house Ovum, could even make data services less reliable, or lock users out of them altogether. "What needs to happen is for the mobile operators to work with government to come up with an agreeable fix that addresses not only poor voice coverage, but also data too," he says.

Forcing networks to allow 2G voice roaming is at best a temporary solution, experts suggest. Instead, it might make more sense for the networks to focus on boosting their infrastructure, or adding more coverage in the 800MHz spectrum, which works well in more rural areas.

Or, as Quocirca's Bamforth suggests, operators, and business users, should be thinking more of "wireless extending the fixed network, rather than replacing it". Small cells and femto cells, some operated by networks, some by businesses and communities, could be part of the answer.

"A lot of the focus of mobile operators has been fixed mobile substitution to get you off a landline onto an independent mobile via its own network," he says.

Integrating fixed and mobile networks could well be the answer to coverage issues, and it could improve the business case of rural broadband connections too.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

Featured Resources

Four strategies for building a hybrid workplace that works

All indications are that the future of work is hybrid, if it's not here already

Free webinar

The digital marketer’s guide to contextual insights and trends

How to use contextual intelligence to uncover new insights and inform strategies

Free Download

Ransomware and Microsoft 365 for business

What you need to know about reducing ransomware risk

Free Download

Building a modern strategy for analytics and machine learning success

Turning into business value

Free Download

Recommended

How governments can build resilience in a new normal
Whitepaper

How governments can build resilience in a new normal

27 Apr 2022
IT Pro News in Review: Vulnerable Lenovo laptops, record EE 5G speeds, Okta ends LAPSUS$ probe
Security

IT Pro News in Review: Vulnerable Lenovo laptops, record EE 5G speeds, Okta ends LAPSUS$ probe

22 Apr 2022
Google Cloud wins tender with Israeli judiciary
Cloud

Google Cloud wins tender with Israeli judiciary

12 Apr 2022
Government launches £12 million grant to boost startup growth
startups

Government launches £12 million grant to boost startup growth

11 Apr 2022

Most Popular

Windows Server admins say latest Patch Tuesday broke authentication policies
Server & storage

Windows Server admins say latest Patch Tuesday broke authentication policies

12 May 2022
16 ways to speed up your laptop
Laptops

16 ways to speed up your laptop

13 May 2022
Costa Rica declares state of emergency following Conti ransomware attack
ransomware

Costa Rica declares state of emergency following Conti ransomware attack

10 May 2022