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UK operators discuss mast barter scheme to boost rural coverage

Rural coverage remains inadequate in the UK, after operators pushed back angrily against 2017 government proposals to mandate roaming in affected areas. Regulator Ofcom says that in 20% of rural areas, it is not possible to make a voice call on all four networks.

Now the four MNOs have entered talks about a new ‘barter’ system which would make it easier for them to share rural cell towers. The proposal is that an MNO could use a rival’s mast, in return for letting that competitor ­install equipment on one of its own masts in return.

The companies say this would increase efficiency of investment in network expansion and help them meet the government’s 95% territorial coverage target, without the need for further regulatory intervention.

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer brands including the EE mobile service, argued in an article in The Telegraph newspaper: “In reality, mast sharing across the industry exists today, but we want to work with the other networks to supercharge this to give consumers more choice. I’m confident that, if we can get the government and the rest of the industry to agree to this pledge, we can deliver on the ambition to provide everyone in the country with the good mobile coverage they need.”

Allera said that proposals for compulsory roaming are “misplaced” and dilute any incentive to invest in rural areas, while giving an “unfair leg-up” to companies that have not made those investments themselves. Similar arguments have been made to resist government plans to impose roaming or sharing in Germany and Australia, among others.

To fend off further interference, the UK MNOs have made some efforts to work with new types of networks which can improve the profitability of sparsely-populated networks. EE, for instance, has worked with a virtualized small cell architecture from Parallel Wireless, while Vodafone has also adopted a small cell approach in some villages.

Late last year, Telefonica’s O2 pledged to improve 4G coverage for 330 rural towns and villages across the UK, as part of a £45m network expansion project. The project should improve connectivity for up to 250,000 people, said the operator, citing a report it commissioned, which says better 4G connectivity could boost collective revenues for rural businesses by up to £141m.

“4G coverage is improving all the time, but there’s more to do, particularly in rural areas. We’ve already reformed planning laws to make it easier and cheaper to install and upgrade digital infrastructure,” said Margot James, the UK’s digital minister.

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