The government has set out plans to eliminate the poor mobile coverage that it says "blights" a fifth of the UK.
Culture secretary Sajid Javid said mobile users in many parts of the UK regularly suffer from a poor signal leaving them unable to make calls or send texts.
These areas, known as "partial not-spots", have coverage from some but not all of the four mobile networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone). Depending on the network consumers are on, they therefore may not have mobile coverage.
Javid is "determined" to improve coverage from all four networks in these areas and has therefore launched a consultation on the various legislative proposals that can help achieve this.
Talks have been held with the mobile companies in recent months in an attempt to find a voluntary solution and this work by the industry is expected to continue whilst the consultation runs.
Javid said: “It can’t be right that in a fifth of the UK, people cannot use their phones to make a call. The government isn’t prepared to let that situation continue. This consultation will complement the work industry is doing and allow the government to hear from the wider telecoms sector, businesses and the public.
“Businesses have been clear about the importance of mobile phones and improved coverage will help deliver jobs and economic security.”
The options in the consultation document include national roaming, so phones would roam onto another network’s signal when their's was not available - similar to what happens when you’re abroad. Infrastructure sharing is another option, so mobile networks would be able to put transmitters on each other’s masts - this already happens in some locations.
There is also the "reforming virtual networks" option. Companies such as Tesco and Virgin currently agree access to a single network and then sell mobile packages to consumers. The government could ensure these virtual networks were able to offer mobiles that access all four networks.
A "coverage obligation" could also oblige the networks to cover a certain percentage of the UK, but leaving it open for them to decide how to best achieve this outcome, the government said.
Industry regulator Ofcom is also getting in on the act when measuring the performance of the mobile operators. In a report last week on mobile coverage, focusing on mobile "not spots", it said: "We are addressing these issues where we can, imposing an extensive 4G coverage obligation and supporting network sharing. We are also looking into the release of more spectrum to help solve the problem."
It explained: "For instance, we have recently consulted on proposals to make the 700MHz spectrum band available for mobile services. This could help to improve coverage, but it is unlikely to provide benefits to citizens until 2020 at the earliest."
Such a wait is clearly unacceptable to the government, but there are critics of its latest mobile coverage move as it focuses on 2G signals for making calls and sending texts - not addressing poor 3G data coverage and so far patchy 4G data coverage, which is also a business concern. Analyst Ovum said the government must also focus on encouraging good mobile data coverage too.
John Allan, Federation of Small Businesses national chairman, said of the general government move: “The current level of geographic mobile coverage is insufficient. The vast majority (87 percent) of small firms view mobile coverage as being important to their business with significant numbers being negatively affected by ‘partial not spots’."
He said: "This is unacceptable in a modern economy. Moves to address this issue are long overdue and the lack of action has hindered small firms’ ability to do business."
FSB research shows 80 percent of small firms support the introduction of some form of national roaming to help solve the problem.
National roaming 'would be a very big step'
Antony Walker, deputy CEO of technology industry body techUK, warned however that some of the government's proposals could cause problems. Representing the views of the mobile operators, Walker said: “TechUK believes that technology should be ubiquitous and supports the underlying motivation behind the government announcement. However implementing national roaming, which is one of the four options being considered, would be a very big step."
He added: "The incentives for infrastructure deployment are very finely balanced and care must be taken to ensure that a switch to national roaming does not lead to unintended consequences - it could ‘disincentivise’ infrastructure investment and competition, as well as have technical consequences leading to a worse overall customer experience."
The mobile operators are said to have told the government that national roaming has "security" implications for their networks - even though national roaming is effectively no different from international roaming, which they all support. National roaming would also make it harder for the police and security services in the UK to easily track criminals and terrorists on a single network, although many of them use pre-pay phones under false names anyway.