May security fear on phone roaming

Published: Wednesday 5th November 2014 by The News Editor

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Plans for new laws to force phone companies to improve coverage in so-called “mobile not-spots” are reportedly being challenged by Home Secretary Theresa May on national security grounds.

After failing to secure agreement from the big four mobile providers – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – on voluntary changes, Culture Secretary Sajid Javid is launching a consultation on possible legislative action, which could involve the introduction of “national roaming”, allowing phones to switch between networks in the way they do on trips abroad.

But a leaked letter obtained by The Times suggests that Mrs May has raised objections to two of the options being considered, warning they could have a “detrimental impact” on the work of police and intelligence agencies.

Without spelling out the technical reasons why their work may be hampered, she reportedly asked for more studies to ensure that any changes do not stop police from accessing “information that is crucial to keeping us safe” from crime and terrorism. It is thought that national roaming could make it more difficult to track suspects’ movements.

Mr Javid said he was “determined” to tackle the poor mobile coverage which means phone users suffer from poor signals in a fifth of the UK, leaving them unable to make calls or send texts.

These areas – so called “partial not-spots” – have coverage from some, but not all, of the four mobile networks. Depending on which network they are on, consumers may have no coverage in a particular not-spot.

As well as national roaming, options under consideration include requiring mobile networks to share infrastructure such as phone masts, allowing companies like Tesco or Virgin to sell packages offering access to all four networks, or obliging existing providers to cover a certain percentage of the UK.

According to The Times, Mrs May warned in her letter to David Cameron and other senior ministers that national roaming “could have a detrimental impact on law enforcement, security and intelligence agency access to communications data and lawful intercept”. She also apparently raised objections to the idea of packages offering access to all the major networks.

The paper quoted her as warning that the ability of police and intelligence agents to listen to calls and read emails is “vital to protecting the public from crime and terrorism”.

Mr Javid has made improving mobile phone coverage a key priority since taking the helm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in April, but talks with the mobile companies over recent months have so far failed to deliver a voluntary solution.

Talks will continue during the consultation process, which ends on November 26.

Mr Javid said: “I’m determined to ensure the UK has world-class mobile phone coverage as investment in infrastructure will help drive this government’s long-term economic plan.

“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.

“We’ve been talking to the mobile companies about the problem and they are working with us to find a solution.

“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 DCMS cited research by the Federation of Small Businesses which found that 71% of companies rated mobile phones as crucial or very important to their business, but that 51% had problems with coverage “very or quite often”.

A Home Office spokesman said: “We wouldn’t comment on a leaked document.”

A Labour spokesman said: ” The detail of this policy needs careful consideration.

“Rather than briefing against each other as part of the ongoing Tory leadership squabble to replace David Cameron, Cabinet ministers should be making clear what the impact will be on 4G services for consumers and the emergency services, as well as any possible implications for national security and the fight against serious crime.”

Published: Wednesday 5th November 2014 by The News Editor

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