Mobile operators and government make plans to improve rural coverage

The government’s putting a lot of pressure on networks to improve coverage across the UK. National roaming’s one idea, but what else is on the table?

The UK's four mobile network operators, O2, Three, EE and Vodafone, have met up with the government to discuss sharing their masts to improve coverage in rural areas, The Telegraph reports.

The government's been piling pressure on operators to improve the spotty coverage people that people in remote parts of the country have to endure, with national roaming one of its suggested solutions. Essentially, that would mean operators would have to allow people who aren't customers to use their network if their actual provider doesn't have coverage in the area.

It's not a popular plan with the networks. They argue that it would hurt competition, eliminate any differentiation between services and actually reduce investment in parts of the country - why bother rolling services out in the sticks, when customers can already use another network to make calls?

Instead, they're discussing a compromise. So-called "passive mast sharing" would allow operators to install their own equipment on a rival's mast, thus providing a more affordable way to boost coverage than building their own.

In fact, they already do this to an extent. EE and Three share masts, for example, and so do O2 and Vodafone. But with the pressure mounting from Whitehall for coverage to get better, this collaboration may have to increase further.

It sounds like there's still a lot of details to work out, though. For example, which areas would benefit from mast sharing, and who gets to decide what they are - operators, or industry regulator Ofcom?

The networks have also suggested their own solutions, such as being allowed to increase the height of masts 25 metres, considerably higher than masts are currently permitted to be.

It's in their interests to work something out though, as the government refuses to give up on the idea of national roaming, and Ofcom has indicated it is potentially workable.

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