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MP launches ten minute rule bill on in-UK roaming

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Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark yesterday used the ten-minute rule to present the UK parliament with his ideas on intra-country roaming for mobile phones.

The ten-minute rule gives backbench MPs the opportunity to introduce a bill beyond those normally scheduled: the MP has ten minutes to present their case, and an opponent may then speak for ten minutes, after which the house generally votes against the bill, which is dropped having served its purpose of bringing attention to an issue or polling for support.

Clark's bill concerns UK network operators allowing customers to roam between their networks - so that a T-Mobile customer finding themselves in the Highlands would be able to roam to O2 and still make and receive calls. Clark reckons that only 65 per cent of the UK population is covered by all four operators, a figure that drops to 28 per cent in Wales.

It's true that visitors to the UK generally have better coverage than locals, as their SIMs allow roaming to any local operator. Some emergency services have started using foreign SIMs for exactly that reason and there are good reasons to do so, such as the accident cited by Clark where a crashing train destroyed Orange's track-side infrastructure, preventing calls on that network.

GSM SIMs contain a list of preferred roaming partners, updated by the network operator when business arrangements change. A roaming user can override that preference, though few do (one operator runs advertisements in airports proclaiming "Why leave such an important decision to a machine?").

It should be possible to list home operators by preference too, though once a SIM has connected to one operator it's often reluctant to change, so a user moving around the country could end up connected to whichever network was available when they switched on their phone.

There is also the matter of cost - even with the EU cap, roaming calls are expensive, and while Clark feels users will pay more for ubiquitous coverage, the average punter might not feel the same. Clark apparently hit five spots with no signal during a 15-mile train journey from Tunbridge Wells, which seems a high number of dead spots in a densely populated area - probably caused by a dodgy handset, or network capacity, neither of which would be solved by intra-country roaming.

2G coverage in the UK is generally very good, but only because competition drove it that way. Kirkwall, on the Orkneys, has coverage from both Vodafone and O2, but only because those two companies got into an advertising war about who had the most UK coverage. Greg Clark reckons that's irrelevant now as 3G licences mandate 80 per cent (population) coverage, but when O2 started their 3G roll-out everything north of Inverness was, quite literally, off the top of the map.

Clark also seems unaware that 3UK and T-Mobile are already planning to share their 3G networks, as are Vodafone and Orange - due to the lack of competition regarding coverage these days. So his bill would seem to be redundant, and solve no real problems.

Obviously the reading went unopposed, though the house was hardly packed (video). Those MPs who had hung around supported the bill which will go to a white paper on the 6th June. Even if it passes it won't mandate network sharing by operators, and real intra-country roaming is unlikely to happen before the residents of Kirkwall get their 3G coverage. ®

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