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Ofcom must do more to foster high-quality mobile networks

Photograph of Mark HeathIn his wireless blog, Mark Heath, of Unwired Insight calls on Ofcom and the UK government to do more.

Industry regulators will not escape budget cuts as the UK government attempts to control spending. The government announced last week that it will merge the telecommunications regulator (Ofcom) with the postal regulator (Postcomm) and several Ofcom duties will be removed or modified. While this may be seen as purely a cost cutting measure, aimed at trimming some of the activities performed by Ofcom, we see an opportunity for a more fundamental review of Ofcom’s purpose and activities.

In the mobile industry, Ofcom has focused successfully on encouraging competition and reducing prices. Until the merger of Orange UK and T-Mobile UK, there were five distinct mobile network operators (which is more than most countries), as well as numerous MVNOs (including Virgin Mobile and Tesco Mobile). Mobile pricing is among the lowest in the world.

However, Ofcom has been less effective in encouraging investment in mobile networks or the delivery of high quality of service. While mobile customers value low prices, they also expect good coverage, both outdoors and indoors. In the era of mobile broadband services, they want download speeds that are consistently in excess of 1Mbit/s. Perhaps Ofcom believed that a competitive market would naturally lead to strong investment in mobile network coverage and quality, so that they could adopt a ‘soft touch’ regulatory approach.  Unfortunately, this alone has not been enough.

In order for mobile network operators to support rapidly-increasing traffic volumes and to deploy next-generation mobile networks, they need access to suitable spectrum. However, for various reasons there have been several hold-ups, over a number of years, in the auctioning and refarming of spectrum at 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz for next-generation LTE and WiMAX networks. Despite the UK adopting an EC Directive to liberalise the use of spectrum at 900MHz and 1800MHz, there are ongoing delays while Ofcom undertakes a competitive review of the mobile market. It is imperative that this much-needed spectrum becomes available soon. The inevitable uncertainty within the corridors of Ofcom about the impact of the latest government announcements must not be allowed to delay this any further.

While Ofcom has produced a significant amount of data on the pricing of mobile services in the UK (including comparisons with other countries), the quality of the mobile networks has received far less attention. In my previous post on Are the UK’s 3G networks suffering from chronic underinvestment? I pointed out that the UK is way behind Japan in the delivery of high-quality 3G services. Despite the importance of coverage, it is only relatively recently that Ofcom has started to publish independent 3G coverage maps. In July 2009, Ofcom pledged “consumer protection for mobile users” by publishing 3G mobile coverage maps for the first time. These highlighted significant weaknesses in the population coverage of 3G mobile services, particularly for O2 and Vodafone. However, there were so many caveats in the description of the methodology used to derive coverage maps, that its strong conclusions were undermined.

In my period at O2 (then Cellnet) during the 1990s, the then regulator Oftel regularly performed drive-testing of the mobile networks, and I remember O2 paying great attention to the published results. Indeed I was personally involved in a major initiative to improve the quality of O2’s network, in response to the Oftel results. Disappointingly, drive-testing was discontinued by the regulator, so Ofcom has been unable to gauge the quality of the UK mobile networks until recently. Far too late, in September 2010, it was announced that the company Epitiro would measure mobile broadband performance on behalf of Ofcom.

In the present climate of cost cutting, it will be imperative that these early steps in getting to grips with the performance realities of the UK mobile networks are not hampered or diluted. It is crucial for Ofcom to play its part in the creation of high-quality mobile networks.

Dr Mark Heath co-founded Unwired Insight in 2001, to provide analysis and market intelligence for the mobile telecommunications industry. Previously he contributed to the standardisation of GSM, UMTS and DECT and held senior roles for a mobile network operator and equipment manufacturer. Mark has written over 40 industry reports and has advised investors, network operators, equipment vendors, lawyers and government bodies.

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