Monday, February 16, 2009

It's Scotland's Electromagnetic Spectrum!

OK, I'll admit it freely here and now. 'It's our Electromagnetic Spectrum!' perhaps isn't the catchiest slogan in Scottish political history. However, the sentiments behind it could turn out to be an important part in ensuring that rural Scotland can take its place at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Before your eyes glaze over, please, hear me out. This is, I'll admit once more, a bit of an anoraky issue. Or at least it is until you get to the implications. So, if you're still with me, get yourself a strong cup of coffee and strap yourself in tight as we head (only temporarily, I assure you) for the 'dork' side.

As some might remember hazily from dim and distant science lessons, the electromagnetic spectrum covers everything from nuclear radiation and the UV rays that give you sunburn, to visible light, right down to the frequencies that bring you mobile phone signals and television through your aerial. It's the mobile phone and TV signals which should interest us here, though.

Since there's a limited amount of data which can be sent on the space available, these portions of the radio spectrum are much coveted, with telecommunications companies prepared to pay handsomely for the rights to use them. And HM Government in London, which regulates these usages for us, is only too happy to collect the cash on our behalf.

It's big business too. When he was but a humble Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown managed to extract a whopping £22.5bn at year 2000 prices for the 5 new mobile phone network licenses. This is what became known as '3G', which you can use to get high-speed data on your mobile phone or a laptop, albeit at something of a premium cost.


It would have been a disaster for companies like Vodafone or Orange to have missed out on the chance to offer these enhanced mobile services, so they paid through the nose for the privilege. Having seen how successful the UK Government had been at milking the cash-rich telecoms companies for these lucrative licenses, the rest of Europe followed suit.

Results? The phone companies ended up having to overpay for the franchises; they then couldn't afford to expand 3G coverage as quickly as they might have liked; and in a bid to rebuild their finances, they then spent several years wringing this cash back from the poor consumer, through overcharging us for data usage, for using our phones overseas and by selling overpriced pictures and ringtones to kids.

Consequently, it's taken nearly a decade for 3G technology to really catch on in the UK. In Scotland, despite the fact that there's now an even faster fourth generation of the technology just around the corner, 3G coverage is still dismal. Venture too far away from the Central Belt, Inverness, the M74 or the main east coast ports, and you'll be back to using 20 year old technology – pitting a stagecoach against a bullet train.

And it's with the '4G' future that it looks like Labour is about to make exactly the same mistakes. Desperate for money, Brown will, as he announced in his 2007 budget, attempt to raise £30bn from the companies, this time from the spectrum which will become available after they've switched off analogue TV signals.

The trouble is, when this 'digital switchover' happens on our TV screens, for many people who are served by smaller relays rather than by the main TV transmitters, instead of getting 50-odd channels, you'll be stuck with about 18. Unless, that is, the government decides to keep some of this bandwidth for digital TV coverage in rural areas.

'OK, so everyone will get a good digital TV service that way, but it'll mean less money for the Government to repay its debts!', I hear you cry. Well, yes, indeed it would, and much, much less money too, if I had my way.
3G coverage isn't great in England, but it's hopeless in Scotland. If we want 4G to be better, then we need to do something radical, and here it is. Instead of having another auction for this spectrum, then why not give control of it to Scotland, and let the Scottish Government give it away for nothing?

That's right – after we've given everyone a decent free digital TV service from Gatehouse of Fleet to Gartly, let's give the rest of the spectrum away to the mobile companies free, gratis and for nothing. The catch, if you can call it that, is that in exchange for not paying the Scottish Government for this privilege, the companies successful in their bids will be the ones which promise to expand their Scottish geographical coverage the fastest.

So, Scotland takes control of one of her resources, rural Scotland gets the decent digital TV and mobile coverage which it lacks presently, and we take our place as one of the most digitally connected countries in the world. And since we'd be giving away something which we didn't have to begin with, the cost is negligible.

A Scottish solution to a Scottish problem; one which makes us better rather than worse off; and which won't cost a penny either. I bet Gordon Brown hates the idea already...

12 comments:

Jeff said...

It's quite something you have there, and only a little dorky I would say.

I'd say it makes much more political sense than business sense but it's still a great idea for both reasons I would think. Still chewing it over as it's certainly radical.

Any idea if this is on the SNP policy makers radar in any way?

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks Jeff - it's always nice to have non-geekiness verified by others :-)

This is not SNP policy - merely me flying a little kite. However, since it relates to a reserved matter and one which an independent Scotland would in time expect to have jurisdiction over, I reckon it's worthwhile having a think about how it might be managed in a manner better suited to the different market conditions which there are in Scotland relative to the UK taken as a whole.

We can already tell what's likely to happen with 4G in Scotland if we repeat the process that was followed with 3G. Given the costs of providing high speed broadband in rural areas using cables, maybe wireless is the way to go in parts of rural Scotland. 4G offers that potential, providing the companies can be suitably incentivised to provide the necessary geographical coverage. This might be part of how it can be done.

Stuart Winton said...

Nice idea in theory, but could you really see Scotland gaining control of the 4G spectrum before it's superseded by some other technology?

Would the service providers view it as economically viable to provide the service in rural areas even if the spectrum was free?

Having had their fingers burnt with the 3G auction then they're clearly going to be very wary about future ventures of this kind, and the current economic climate will probably exacerbate this caution for years to come.

I seem to recall that the OTT prices paid on the 3G auction were on the basis that video calls would take off big-style, but clearly that bombed, thus the providers are likely to be very wary about prospective future uses of the 4G spectrum. (Indeed wasn't the failure of video calling which cause the problems as much as the costs associated with buying the 3G licences?

Another point is to that extent pehaps GB is being a bit optimistic about potential 4G proceeds, although to be honest reading your post was the first I'd heard of it.

As for the cost to Scotland if we did take control of the spectrum, surely there would be an opportunity cost involved with giving it away for nothing, assuming that it does have some economic value? I can just hear the "schools and hospitals" arguments now!

BTW, I'm using mobile broadband these days, which I suspect was the unanticipated use of 3G, but it's good to see they've found a usse for it!!

On balance I'd say your article title is better than the idea ;0)

Richard Thomson said...

Nice idea in theory, but could you really see Scotland gaining control of the 4G spectrum before it's superseded by some other technology?

That's not necessarily the point, Stuart. If it were agreed to treat Scotland differently, it could be done from Westminster also.

Would the service providers view it as economically viable to provide the service in rural areas even if the spectrum was free?

I think they would. The more coverage a network has, the more attractive it becomes to subscribers everywhere. If you make geographical coverage the name of the game, that's potentially £3bn all companies have straight away to invest in Scotland, thus garnering more subscribers. If they share masts, then potentially, it's better still.

Having had their fingers burnt with the 3G auction then they're clearly going to be very wary about future ventures of this kind, and the current economic climate will probably exacerbate this caution for years to come.

All the more reason to try and encourage investment in infrastructure, rather than taking capital which might otherwise have gone to that purpose for franchise rights, surely? 4G is going to happen – the only questions are 'how quickly' and 'who gets it'. Don't forget that the manufacturers will be putting a big stress on to get us to upgrade our handsets when the time comes, which will be a big driver also.

I seem to recall that the OTT prices paid on the 3G auction were on the basis that video calls would take off big-style, but clearly that bombed, thus the providers are likely to be very wary about prospective future uses of the 4G spectrum. (Indeed wasn't the failure of video calling which cause the problems as much as the costs associated with buying the 3G licences?

They obviously thought the costs could be recouped, but they got the business model wrong, hence the subsequent obsession with other 'value added' services and the astronomical costs for roaming, mobile data etc. Now that they've belatedly realised there's a huge demand for mobile data at a reasonable price, though...

Another point is to that extent pehaps GB is being a bit optimistic about potential 4G proceeds, although to be honest reading your post was the first I'd heard of it.

Mibbes aye, mibbes naw. The companies will pay what they feel they have to so they don't get left behind. It's not really quantum that's the principle here, since we know it's going to be a lot in any case.

As for the cost to Scotland if we did take control of the spectrum, surely there would be an opportunity cost involved with giving it away for nothing, assuming that it does have some economic value? I can just hear the "schools and hospitals" arguments now!

Yes. And the opportunity cost of auctioning it off as we did before is glacial roll out and inflated consumer costs. We can take our one-off bonus and pay for it later as consumers thorough increased costs and lack of coverage, or we can get a service that enhances the quality of rural life and provides a stimulus to business.

BTW, I'm using mobile broadband these days, which I suspect was the unanticipated use of 3G, but it's good to see they've found a usse for it!!

So am I (though not at home, sadly). And isn't this the most likely revenue raiser for 4G in rural areas, given the likely costs of putting fibre right to someone's door? :-)

Stuart Winton said...

Richard, thanks for the detailed response. To be honest I don't really know that much about the technological and economic minutiae to be able to say much in response.

In essence, however, although your case regarding the benfits of the service providers not having the deadweight cost of the licencss is compelling, and would no doubt lead to greater coverage, I suppose the question is, how great would that benefit be?

Intutively I suspect that it would still leave vast areas of Scotland uncovered, but of course I may be completely wrong in this!

Telecoms engineer said...

Richard

A friend suggested I read your post. Alas, there are a number of fairly serious factual inaccuracies in what you have to say, as well as one very serious policy problem with your proposal.

First, it is simply not true to say that 4G is "just around the corner". In fact, there are many different visions for what 4G even is, or what it will do. Many of the standards for this next iteration are still in their technical planning stages. There are also a number of different possible formats that such an evolution may adopt, some of which may end up in competing against one another. Please bear that latter point in mind; it is important for later on.

Secondly, it is not true to say that 3G coverage in Scotland is "dismal". In fact, nearly three-quarters of Scottish postcodes are covered by at least one operator. It is poor in the sparsely populated parts of Scotland - just as it is poor in the sparsely populated parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, it is not the case that reserving some of the spectrum freed up by digital switchover for extra digital terrestrial coverage will enable everyone to access the approximately 40 (not 50) channels currently on Freeview. In some cases, there simply aren't the frequencies to upgrade all relays to the other three commercial multiplexes. In others, there are frequencies, but they are protected by international treaty. That latter point demonstrates the basic difficulty with your argument; the spectrum is not Scotland's, it's not the UK's. It's the world's, and it needs to be very carefully co-ordinated to avoid interference and thus redundancy.

Fourthly, it is not true to suggest that the coverage of 3G has been hampered by the prices paid by the operators at auction. In fact, coverage of 3G is higher in the UK than in anywhere else in the world except Japan! Nor is it easy to see where you evidence your claim that the mobile operators have had to recoup their investments through over-charging; in fact, prices in the UK compare very well internationally. Doubtless, the operators over-paid for the spectrum. They have had to absorb that. However, a substantial transfer of resource from private to public hands also has its upsides? No?

But most fundamental by far is your rather blithe assertion that the Scottish government should (or indeed, can) pick who gets this spectrum. In the economic jargon, such allocation has a very high opportunity cost; whatever use that spectrum is put to denies its use for other, potentially more beneficial, purposes. In the first instance, this entrenches massively the market position of the mobile operators whom you criticise so heavily (in fact I strongly suspect such an allocation would be illegal under EU competition law).

But as importantly, it would most likely have some very negative effects indeed. As history shows (including in spectrum allocation) government is almost the last entity one would want making decisions about which technology will be the best in the future. By handing the spectrum over you run the very considerable risk of ending up with a standard that may not be the best or most successful in the longer run (note my point earlier about competing technologies).

What would be the outcome of this? To potentially massively disadvantage Scotland, stranding her with a sub-standard, sub-scale technolgy, while the rest of the UK and Europe innovated and made use of the spectrum according to the real demands of consumers, rather than what a group of under-qualified civil servants deemed those demands to be.

The cost under these circumstances would not be nil, but it could very easily be incalculable.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks for commenting, Telecoms engineer. Glad to be able to test this out with someone who is actually involved in these matters.

First, it is simply not true to say that 4G is "just around the corner". In fact, there are many different visions for what 4G even is, or what it will do….

Fair enough. My point was that there will be, in the future, faster wireless services which become available - no more and no less. I freely admit that when I’m doing a column (this was for the Scots Independent newspaper originally), due to the word limit I’ll occasionally sacrifice precision for a snappier phrase to keep people reading.

Secondly, it is not true to say that 3G coverage in Scotland is "dismal". In fact, nearly three-quarters of Scottish postcodes are covered by at least one operator. It is poor in the sparsely populated parts of Scotland - just as it is poor in the sparsely populated parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

75% of postcodes might sound impressive, but take a look at a coverage map for a network like Vodafone – arguably the best for coverage in Scotland – and compare the blue bits of GSM coverage with the areas of red for 3G.

As I said, away from the Central Belt, the M74, Inverness and the main east coast ports, it’s practically non-existent. That is fact – whether you describe it as good, satisfactory or dismal is a matter of opinion.

Thirdly, it is not the case that reserving some of the spectrum freed up by digital switchover for extra digital terrestrial coverage will enable everyone to access the approximately 40 (not 50) channels currently on Freeview.

The Digital UK website indicates c. 50 for the main transmitters in Scotland. Is the information they are providing from their postcode checker inaccurate?

In some cases, there simply aren't the frequencies to upgrade all relays to the other three commercial multiplexes. In others, there are frequencies, but they are protected by international treaty. That latter point demonstrates the basic difficulty with your argument; the spectrum is not Scotland's, it's not the UK's. It's the world's, and it needs to be very carefully co-ordinated to avoid interference and thus redundancy.

Fair point – my understanding is that the relay transmitters are offering 3 multiplexes rather than 6, hence the reduced service. Out of interest, if the 4G tech standards have yet to be agreed, is there anything yet agreed which might prevent some of the current analogue TV spectrum being retained for digital in rural areas?

Incidentally, I’d have thought that unless 4G, however it emerges, demands the use of this entire area of spectrum, that the opportunities for interfering with other uses was pretty minimal. It’s not like there’s going to be the same issues as there are with interference on the south coast of England between the UK and French digital systems, surely?

Fourthly, it is not true to suggest that the coverage of 3G has been hampered by the prices paid by the operators at auction. In fact, coverage of 3G is higher in the UK than in anywhere else in the world except Japan! Nor is it easy to see where you evidence your claim that the mobile operators have had to recoup their investments through over-charging; in fact, prices in the UK compare very well internationally. Doubtless, the operators over-paid for the spectrum. They have had to absorb that. However, a substantial transfer of resource from private to public hands also has its upsides? No?

Overcharging? See roaming charges and data tariffs pre the present 3G mobile broadband push, compared to where prices are heading now.

If your argument is that in relative terms, the UK has rolled the technology out as extensively if not more so than many European competitors, then that might be true. However, since most of Europe went through the same auction process, it doesn’t mean that the coverage would not have rolled out faster had the cost of obtaining the licences been less.

Every £ spent on getting a license was a £ less for expanding the network. As I say, make a condition (From St Andrews House or Whitehall) of winning the franchise that a company will agree to cover x% of population and y% of landmass by a certain date, and I think we’d see better coverage and on a shorter timescale than has been the case to date.

But most fundamental by far is your rather blithe assertion that the Scottish government should (or indeed, can) pick who gets this spectrum. In the economic jargon, such allocation has a very high opportunity cost; whatever use that spectrum is put to denies its use for other, potentially more beneficial, purposes. In the first instance, this entrenches massively the market position of the mobile operators whom you criticise so heavily (in fact I strongly suspect such an allocation would be illegal under EU competition law).

I’ve read the piece again, and I still can’t see where I criticise mobile operators! As for the opportunity cost, this is something I’m well aware of and dealt with in both the main body of the text and in discussion with Stuart above. I’d also be interested to know why you think a competitive allocation of bandwidth might be illegal under competition law, when the only difference is allocating winners based on service guarantees rather than cash handed over?

But as importantly, it would most likely have some very negative effects indeed. As history shows (including in spectrum allocation) government is almost the last entity one would want making decisions about which technology will be the best in the future. By handing the spectrum over you run the very considerable risk of ending up with a standard that may not be the best or most successful in the longer run (note my point earlier about competing technologies).

You have me there. Ideally, the industry rather than government will come forward with one unified standard which will be implemented worldwide. But which entity, if not government, should be the one who allocates the spectrum needed for this?

What would be the outcome of this? To potentially massively disadvantage Scotland, stranding her with a sub-standard, sub-scale technolgy, while the rest of the UK and Europe innovated and made use of the spectrum according to the real demands of consumers, rather than what a group of under-qualified civil servants deemed those demands to be.

All of which seems to be predicated on government choosing the technology, which is not what I’m arguing for.

A question to finish with – as someone clearly involved in the industry, are you happy that the process followed for 3G implementation in the UK has resulted in the most competitive pricing structure and the best possible coverage?

Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated :-)

Richard Thomson said...

Richard, thanks for the detailed response. To be honest I don't really know that much about the technological and economic minutiae to be able to say much in response.

And thank you for commenting. The whole point was to kick the idea around a bit and see if it stood up to the scrutiny of others, expert or not.

In essence, however, although your case regarding the benfits of the service providers not having the deadweight cost of the licencss is compelling, and would no doubt lead to greater coverage, I suppose the question is, how great would that benefit be?

Well, that's the hard bit. If there's a benefit to the service, then there's surely also a benefit, albeit one with diminishing marginal returns, to seeing that service rolled out to allow as many people as possible to take advantage. The key point is trying to define where the benefit of having coverage greater than it otherwise might be is surpassed by the benefit of securing a one-off payment to the Treasury for the licences.

Intutively I suspect that it would still leave vast areas of Scotland uncovered, but of course I may be completely wrong in this!

I think it would leave areas uncovered, just as there are just now for GSM or '2G'. However, there's a lot of small towns and main roads around Scotland where I imagine the network providers could be suitably incentivised to provide 4G cover where currently 3G coverage has yet to or may never reach.

I hope that 'Telecoms engineer' comes back to comment, though, since his/her technical knowledge is clearly in excess of mine as an interested consumer.

Telecoms engineer said...

As I said, away from the Central Belt, the M74, Inverness and the main east coast ports, it’s practically non-existent. That is fact – whether you describe it as good, satisfactory or dismal is a matter of opinion.

I'd argue it's only dismal if it's way below what people in other parts of the world get. It's not.

The Digital UK website indicates c. 50 for the main transmitters in Scotland. Is the information they are providing from their postcode checker inaccurate?

It includes "red button" services as channels. A good deal of these (e.g Wimbledon multiscreen) aren't available year-round.

Fair point – my understanding is that the relay transmitters are offering 3 multiplexes rather than 6, hence the reduced service.

Correct, but upgrading a relay requires the use of extra frequencies which have to added to the frequency plan. They need to be found and aren't in all cases available, hence not everyone in the UK can have a 6 mux service via DTT.

Out of interest, if the 4G tech standards have yet to be agreed, is there anything yet agreed which might prevent some of the current analogue TV spectrum being retained for digital in rural areas?

No. But (as above) retention of said frequencies won't likely be enough for everyone. These people should get satellite if they want more than c.20 channels.

Incidentally, I’d have thought that unless 4G, however it emerges, demands the use of this entire area of spectrum, that the opportunities for interfering with other uses was pretty minimal.

That's not the issue I'm highlighting.

It’s not like there’s going to be the same issues as there are with interference on the south coast of England between the UK and French digital systems, surely?

Not on the same magnitude.

Overcharging? See roaming charges and data tariffs pre the present 3G mobile broadband push, compared to where prices are heading now.

Again, I'd suggest that a definition of overcharging is a relative one.

Every £ spent on getting a license was a £ less for expanding the network.

The MNOs started to build their networks out (beyond what they were required to - see below) when they perceived they could monetise that investment. As simple as that.

As I say, make a condition (From St Andrews House or Whitehall) of winning the franchise that a company will agree to cover x% of population and y% of landmass by a certain date, and I think we’d see better coverage and on a shorter timescale than has been the case to date.

Such a coverage requirement already exists in the current 3G licences. It's by population.


I’d also be interested to know why you think a competitive allocation of bandwidth might be illegal under competition law, when the only difference is allocating winners based on service guarantees rather than cash handed over?

I confess, this bit is not my area, but it strikes me that if you offer the spectrum via competitive auction it is less likely to be anti-competitive than simply handing it over.


You have me there. Ideally, the industry rather than government will come forward with one unified standard which will be implemented worldwide. But which entity, if not government, should be the one who allocates the spectrum needed for this?

Bluntly: the market. MNOs have deep pockets for spectrum not because they're evil empires, but because they aggregate demand well. So auctions are as good a proxy as any for consumer value. They are not so good at approximating citizen value, so you may have to tweak the process. But, for God's sake, please don't let a bunch of civil servants in the Scottish Parliament decide what applications and technologies people should or will be using for the next twenty years!


A question to finish with – as someone clearly involved in the industry, are you happy that the process followed for 3G implementation in the UK has resulted in the most competitive pricing structure and the best possible coverage?

No. The auction was not technology-neutral (i.e it specified the use of the spectrum for UTMS services only) and came in the middle of the dotcom bubble, hence the wildly inflated prices. Release of spectrum is handled in a much better way nowadays, even though it is still mainly via auction.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated :-)

It's a good discussion. I don't mean to sound terse, but I do get slightly weary of the notion that governments can dish out spectrum on a command-and-control basis in exchange for certain social goodies. It's a really poor way of achieving public policy objectives (you wouldn't, for example, do it with land). Subsidising policy objectives such as universal coverage should be done over-the- table not under it, perhaps using receipts of spectrum auctions. Just handing over spectrum for free (i.e an inplicit subsidy) is a recipe for technological stagnation.

subrosa said...

I've 'nominated' you as one of Subrosa's Super Seven weekly blogs for this article. You're prize is a virtual fish supper so do enjoy and be grateful for the non=calorific content. Then I speak as a female!

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks for the mention, Subrosa. Is there any way to convert my fish supper from a virtual state to an actual one? :-)

Richard Thomson said...

Telecoms engineer:

Upgrading a relay requires the use of extra frequencies which have to added to the frequency plan. They need to be found and aren't in all cases available, hence not everyone in the UK can have a 6 mux service via DTT...

... retention of said frequencies won't likely be enough for everyone. These people should get satellite if they want more than c.20 channels.


I accept that not everyone will be able to get the full 6 mux DTT service no matter what you do, but reading between the lines, it seems feasible that many more people could get than it is planned to have rolled out to at present.

I have Freesat myself, being unable to get Freeview at present, and very good it is too. Using t'internet, I can stream other channels to anywhere in the house using the laptop, Zattoo software and wireless, but it would be nice to be able to have the full bhuna on Freeview when the time comes. Just as it would be nice from the perspective of consumer choice and aesthetics not to have a dish on every house that wants more than the basic service.

The present arrangements may be great news for Foxsat and the other satellite set top box manufacturers, but I'd still like to see someone take a close look at how awkward and costly it really would be to offer more from the relay transmitters – even if it's only to conclude that the costs of converting all or some of the relays outweighs the benefits of people opting for satellite, or that the resulting reduction in available spectrum would inhibit the roll-out of Freeview HD/local TV once that particular discussion has concluded.

I'd argue it's [coverage] only dismal if it's way below what people in other parts of the world get. It's not.... Again, I'd suggest that a definition of overcharging is a relative one.

You can certainly argue that point. However, what I'm driving at is that by approaching things from a different angle, we could end up with coverage and pricing more advantageous to the consumer than might otherwise be the achieved if spectrum were once more auctioned to the highest bidder.

Such a coverage requirement already exists in the current 3G licences. It's by population.

But not, crucially so far as I can see, by geography. That's the only way I can see some places like (declaring an interest) Ellon, Oldmeldrum, Huntly or larger towns like Oban getting covered, as well as some of the main road and rail lines presently untouched by 3G.

Bluntly: the market. MNOs have deep pockets for spectrum not because they're evil empires, but because they aggregate demand well. So auctions are as good a proxy as any for consumer value. They are not so good at approximating citizen value, so you may have to tweak the process. But, for God's sake, please don't let a bunch of civil servants in the Scottish Parliament decide what applications and technologies people should or will be using for the next twenty years!

I agree – the tech specs should be decided by the industry, not government, and ideally, for the sake of the consumer, the standard which emerges should be a global one. Tweaking allocation processes to decide who gets to run it aside, that's one area which should be left squarely to the boffins.

Subsidising policy objectives such as universal coverage should be done over-the- table not under it, perhaps using receipts of spectrum auctions. Just handing over spectrum for free (i.e an inplicit subsidy) is a recipe for technological stagnation.

Over the table would certainly be one way to do it. However, it would require having a government prepared to distribute the proceeds and to do so equitably. While the second condition might be met in the event of the first happening, that's still a very big 'if'. The temptation for government to put the proceeds to other uses might become overwhelming.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. However, if the aim of the game is to have coverage and costs which are better than rather than simply comparable to what already exists, I'd contend it's more likely to happen by getting the commitment written down in advance by the MNOs. Otherwise, I think we'd be likely to find that when the pressure to expand coverage was put on after the existing 3G footprint had been replicated, the costs of additional masts would simply increase to reflect the amount of money perceived to be available.

It might also risk depriving the MNOs of the ability to decide how best the investment could be made to meet the coverage obligations that they would otherwise have been able to enter into freely. It would also risk creating a pork barrel in terms of the funds which would be held over for future investment, which is seldom a healthy thing.

Anyway, cheers for coming back to discuss this. You've certainly given me lots of food for thought.

Regards,

Richard