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The UK government’s plans to make “radical” improvements on mobile phone coverage across the country, especially in rural areas, appear to have hit choppy waters with the mobile operator community apparently in disagreement over how much they should invest in the project.
In October 2019, just as the General Election campaign was under way, the government proposed a £1.3bn scheme, dubbed the Shared Rural Network (SRN), to improve rural mobile coverage. But cracks are already emerging in the scheme, with BT, owner of EE, calling for its prior investments in UK mobile infrastructure to be recognised in formulating the operators’ joint investment.
The SRN plan was constructed with the UK’s four leading operators in order to wipe not-spots from the map, giving what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the country 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, potentially matched by £500m investment from the government.
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. Also, the four operators would unite to create a new organisation to deliver the SRN, offering a solution to the persistent problem of poor mobile coverage in the countryside. It would aim to make maximum use of existing and new phone masts by allowing all four operators to host equipment on them.
The SRN proposal would see each operator reach 92% coverage by 2025, with licence obligations taking effect in 2026. The collective effect of this will be to deliver coverage to 95% of the UK.
But in a statement interpreted by analysts as a shot across the bows of other partners, Marc Allera, CEO of BT Group’s consumer division, issued a warning that although BT was “delighted” to be part of the SRN and that joint investment in rural coverage was imperative, prior investments in infrastructure had to be respected and future investment protected.
This was part of a submission by BT into the final part of the SRN process – looking at the cost proposal for sharing sites. BT’s document outlined the reciprocal costs it believes should be paid by operators to have access to each other’s sites, based, said Allera, on the current inherent value of the mobile sites, and the investment made to get that site up, built and working – as well as the time and effort to obtain planning permission and reach agreement with the landowners.
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Allera said it was only “fair and reasonable” that such investments and the current value of the sites were both taken into account, and need to be recognised when others come to “share” them.
“Sharing sites should be straightforward, deliver a huge benefit to rural locations and, crucially, minimise the need to add more towers and masts,” said Allera. “Over the past seven and a bit years, EE has invested in getting 4G coverage to significantly more places than any other network, driven by our belief that our customers should be able to connect wherever they go. This has meant we’ve built more sites than any other operator.
“And, as Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations report demonstrates, there are many places where we are the only provider of 4G coverage. We expect many of these sites to form the basis of the share programme, helping the other providers to fill holes in their networks to keep people connected.”
Allera suggested that it would be like the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain building a new superstore in a rural area and being made to give away shelf space to rivals Tesco, Lidl and Asda. He stressed that BT wanted to finalise the programme as quickly as possible and get on with improving connectivity across the UK.
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