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UK Shared Rural Network gets official go-ahead

UK government and leading mobile operators confirm £1bn scheme to roll out 4G coverage to 95% of UK landmass by end of 2025

First proposed in October 2019, just as the General Election campaign was under way, the UK government has now confirmed its scheme to end poor mobile telephone coverage in the country’s rural and non-metropolitan areas.

The £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project will aim to take 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by the end of 2025, with coverage increasing in some areas by more than a third. The biggest coverage improvements will be in rural parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The ambition is to make sure everyone can benefit from fast mobile services on the go, no matter which network they are on. The government believes the scheme will spur economic growth and close the digital divide across the country through better connectivity, citing specific benefits for those running small businesses.

The UK government has assured that the SRN will provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads, adding that the nation could expect further indirect improvements over time, including a boost to in-car coverage on around 45,000km of roads and better indoor coverage in around 1.2 million business premises and homes.

In practice. the SRN will be made possible through a partnership between the UK’s four major telecoms operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – which will be investing in a network of new and existing phone masts they would all share, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited.

The four networks have committed to legally binding contracts and investing £532m to close almost all partial notspots – areas where there is currently only coverage from at least one but not all operators. The investment will then be backed by more than £500m of government funding to eliminate total notspots – hard-to-reach areas where there is currently no coverage from any operator. The legally binding coverage commitments will be enforced by UK regulator Ofcom.

“For too many people in the countryside, a bad phone signal is a daily frustration. This is an important milestone to level up the country, improve people’s lives and increase prosperity across the UK”
Oliver Dowden, digital secretary

Commenting on the SRN, UK digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “For too many people in the countryside, a bad phone signal is a daily frustration… This is an important milestone to level up the country, improve people’s lives and increase prosperity across the length and breadth of our United Kingdom.”

Offering his opinion on behalf of the mobile industry, Hamish MacLeod, director at Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, remarked: “The Shared Rural Network partnership between the mobile operators and the government is unprecedented in both its scope and its ambition. Mobile UK looks forward to supporting the delivery of the programme in the coming years.

“Strong competition promotes industry investment in mobile coverage in dense urban areas, but rural areas have fewer potential customers and have not seen the level of investment needed to provide good coverage.”

Yet despite the apparent consensus between all the stakeholders, only weeks ago the project appeared to be heading for trouble after BT, owner of EE, called for its prior investments in UK mobile infrastructure to be recognised in formulating the operators’ joint investment.

In a statement interpreted by analysts as a shot across the bows of other partners, Marc Allera, CEO of BT Group’s consumer division, said that even though 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.

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