British regulator Ofcom criticised from all sides concerning coverage

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MPs demand Ofcom polices coverage obligations better, Vodafone says Ofcom is hindering its ability to provide greater coverage affordably and the playing field is uneven.

More than 40 Members of the UK Parliament from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Business (APPGRB) demanded that the regulator, Ofcom, should better monitor the main four British mobile operators.

The Group says EE, O2, Three UK and Vodafone need to be checked up on more thoroughly, annually, to ensure they are meeting their coverage obligations for 4G and, in future, 5G.

The previous week Vodafone executives expressed strong views about the impact on regulation on coverage too at a UK press briefing, but for very different reasons. The operator’s General Counsel, Helen Lamprell, outlined a number of ways that Vodafone sees as impediments to it meeting its coverage obligations affordably and on an even playing field.

Brexit worries

She also expressed concern that the UK regulator was already “one of the most conservative in Europe” and that it could become more so after Brexit, once freed of the influence of Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC – although some would argue that it gives Ofcom a chance to set better priorities).

Petty said that while 99% of the population and 85% of the land mass has mobile network coverage, expanding that geographic coverage by the next 10% would be difficult, as it is primarily in areas like the Welsh mountains and northern Scottish Highlands “Where there are no people” according to Lamprell, who also pointed out:

Fixed broadband providers receive subsidies and are leverage various funding models, mobile broadband providers were expected to bear the full cost of providing mobile broadband, even where it was not economically feasible to do so

• The regulator has concentrated on improving access to ducts and poles, which is welcome, there is a vast reserve of dark fibre in the UK which Openreach does not have to make available to BT’s competitors.

• Mobile operators are limited to a stand-alone mast height of 25 metres, half the height most of their European counterparts are allowed to deploy. Vodafone UK’s CTO, Scott Petty explained that every 10 metres of additional height beyond 25 metres doubles the size of the coverage area. The issue is 50% of the UK’s land is owned by 0.6% of the population which has lobbied successfully against taller masts. As Lamprell said, “Everyone wants coverage, no-one wants masts”.

• It’s possible that the government could opt for “rural roaming”, which was an option laid out in Ofcom’s Advice to Advice to Government: Further options for improving mobile coverage, last September. This is supported by APPGRB. Both Lamprell and Petty said this would not work because none of the operators would build infrastructure where there are few or no people if they will be forced to share their hefty investment its competitors which would not even cover costs.

• Vodafone would prefer operators being allowed to share infrastructure, including the costs, which makes better economic sense. Lamprell said regulation should allow exceptions to its policy for areas where it is impossible to recoup the cost of  building out infrastructure. EE, O2, Three UK and Vodafone met the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last Thursday, with many of these issues on the agenda.

• Vodafone would like to continue to the roam-like-home in Europe for UK customers after Brexit, but that once the UK is out of the EU, it will be bound by termination rates set by different countries' regulators where it does not have an opco to hand-off calls to. She gave the example of Estonia which has higher termination rates and it looks like Vodafone would have to pass those charges onto customers.

• Ofcom seem to have had a sudden change of strategy for the next phase of the 5G spectrum auction later this year, in which it will sell 120Mhz block in the 3.6-3.8GHz frequencies, plus 80MHz in the 700MHz. The ranges are suited to different purposes (wide coverage and high speed respectively), and Petty said, “We could end up with a very fragmented spectrum situation”.

• The executives also said Vodafone UK would probably have taken different decisions in the first phase of the auction which took place in April 2018 had they had any inkling of Ofcom’s proposed actions in the second.

• Vodafone’s view is that it’s not just the operators that will suffer if these issues aren’t addressed. The UK is in a relatively strong position with 5G – in contrast to its laggard approach to 4G rollout – but poor regulatory and political decisions could severely hamper not just the speed of 5G’s deployment, but make the country less attractive to talent, businesses and investors.