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UK government proposes £1.3bn scheme to improve rural mobile coverage

UK government sets out its plans for a £1.3bn scheme dubbed the Shared Rural Network which will aim to wipe not-spots from the map

Aiming to address one of the most contentious issues being felt by rural communities, the UK government has set out its plans to make radical improvement on mobile phone coverage across the country.

Working in conjunction with the four leading UK operators, the £1.3bn scheme dubbed the Shared Rural Network (SRN) proposes to wipe not-spots from the map, giving what the government claims will be ‘high-quality’ 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.

The scheme has the target of providing additional coverage to 280,000 homes and businesses and 10,000 miles of roads. Initial outlines of the scheme, which is projected to be fully signed in early 2020, will include funding to the tune of £530m from the UK’s mobile network operators with the potential for it to be matched by £500m investment from the government.

“We are determined to make sure no part of the country is left behind when it comes to mobile connectivity,” said secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Nicky Morgan.

“We are closing in on a deal with the mobile network operators so those living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable mobile coverage they need and deserve. Brokering an agreement for mast sharing between networks alongside new investment in mobile infrastructure will mean people get good 4G signal no matter where they are or which provider they’re with.”

The technological key to the SRN is a commitment from operators EE, O2, Three and Vodafone to share phone masts, said to be a world first. In addition, the four operators would unite to create a new organisation to deliver the Shared Rural Network, offering a solution to the persistent problem of poor mobile coverage in the countryside. It would aim to draw maximum use out of existing and new phone masts by allowing all four operators to host equipment on them.

Government-owned mobile infrastructure built as part of the Emergency Services Network will also be made available to all four operators, taking full advantage of government assets.

The SRN proposal would see each individual operator reach 92% coverage by 2025, with licence obligations taking effect in 2026. The collective effect of this will deliver coverage to 95% of the UK.

To date, the government had considered a forthcoming spectrum auction from UK communications regulator Ofcom to be the best opportunity for improving mobile coverage. Historically, Ofcom has used coverage obligations attached to the operators’ licences to improve mobile coverage and had proposed to include two coverage obligations in the next auction in 2020 which would require the two operators who acquire them to reach 90% coverage by 2024, in exchange for a discount.

While "warmly welcoming" the new commitments as being able to make "a real difference" to mobile customers across the UK, an Ofcom spokesperson revealed that it would shortly set out revised plans to release more airwaves for mobile services in 2020 and in light of the new agreement it would no longer propose to include coverage requirements in its auction process.

“We will now press ahead, with industry, on the urgent task of getting better mobile services to people wherever they are,” the spokesperson added.

Mark Evans, CEO of Telefonica UK / O2, said: “These proposals represent a step-change in the way that mobile coverage is delivered. They are the most ambitious solution of all proposals on the table and will ensure that customers across all corners of the UK can access a good connection. By providing a much-needed boost to rural communities, the Shared Rural Network represents a vital step in bridging the digital divide.”

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