Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Using a foreign SIM to roam between UK networks

I have this week recorded a short piece for Radio 4's "You and Yours", explaining how a German SIM allows my mobile to roam across three of the four UK networks.

Here in the Peak District, coverage on each mobile network is very patchy: different networks offer coverage in different spots (with much of the area without any coverage at all).

So, wouldn't it be useful always to be able to pick the best signal, whichever network was offering it?

The cheapskate's answer is to buy a foreign SIM on eBay. I bought a "" SIM, which offers calls at 9c per minute to anywhere in the EU, and doesn't charge to receive calls from the UK or any other EU country.

It isn't perfect:
The biggest challenge is explaining to your friends and contacts that - despite having given them a German phone number - you aren't actually in Germany, and can be down the road to see them within a few minutes of their call.

There are better services, but at a higher price. Auracall's Traveltalk gives you an Isle of Man mobile number (starting 07452) which should roam to all four UK networks, and also looks like a standard UK mobile number. To start, you need to spend £25 on a SIM (£5 for the SIM and £20 of credit) - calls to the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) cost 15p per minute and there is no charge for receiving calls. Be aware that calls to an 07452 mobile will cost callers more than other 07 mobile numbers  - the Isle of Man isn't in the EU and so EU price protections don't work, and calls won't be included in peoples' call bundles. For an extra £1 per month Auracall will also give you an 0344 UK phone number, which your callers can use at standard phone rates.

A more complicated solution, but cheaper than Auracall, is SIP2SIM from the highly-rated telecoms experts Andrews & Arnold. You need a SIP phone connection first (and not all SIP operators will play ball - Sipgate apparently won't). But once you have this sorted, you can then have those SIP calls diverted to/from your mobile for 2.4p per minute each way, plus £2.40 monthly standing charge - and it will roam away from its preferred O2 network when this would make the difference in getting you a signal.

[Please do check the details before signing up to any of these options: I have described them as I understand them, but it's a complicated business, so make sure you are happy before committing].

Why do we need these solutions?

These are all clumsy workarounds to the real problem: that UK governments have been greedy in the money they have looked to extract from mobile companies when auctioning radio spectrum: they have set very low obligations to provide service in less-populated areas. So, the government gets a good fee, but the networks do the minimum they feel they can get away with about serving rural areas.

Having mucked that up, sticking plasters have been sought. In late 2014, the government set the oh-so-ambitious target of 90% geographic coverage, to be achieved by the end of 2017. And in return for that, they abandoned the idea that the networks should allow roaming between their services in rural areas.

Proper "National Roaming" isn't problem free: it would need some financial incentive/penalty system to make it worth networks erecting masts in rural areas (to replace the better-coverage boast that is their current reward). That isn't beyond the wit of man - but too much for our government to ask of these highly profitable businesses: leaving 10% of our land mass without a mobile signal seems to be quite acceptable to their metropolitan minds.

Having no signal in a rural area isn't just a problem for those who live there. It is a problem for those in well-served cities who might want to talk to people in rural areas. It is a problem for those in cities who might sometimes drive through rural areas and would like to be in touch in case someone needs to tell them that their meeting has been cancelled and they are heading in the wrong direction. It is a problem for every citizen if inadequate infrastructure sees people moving away from rural areas because it is too difficult to run a business there. I could go on, but won't.

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