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UK government claims major leap in rural 5G roll-out plans

Boost for rural phone coverage in programme clearing 700MHz spectrum of radio waves for 5G, with spectrum to be auctioned off in bid to deliver nearly 20% more capacity for mobile services

Despite its struggles to develop and launch a Covid-19 contact-tracing app, the UK government has delivered some good news in the mobile arena – it has completed the next steps in its plan to improve mobile coverage in rural areas, in particular the delivery of 5G technology.

Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman is set to confirm the milestone completion of the four-year, £350m major infrastructure programme to clear the 700MHz spectrum band for mobile operators to have the capacity to offer new services that will be at the vanguard of the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The government first attempted to address the issue of UK rural communities facing a likely lack of adequate mobile and broadband connectivity in October 2019. Working in conjunction with the four leading UK mobile operators, the £1.3bn scheme, dubbed the Shared Rural Network (SRN), proposed to wipe not-spots from the map, giving what the government claimed would be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.

The scheme’s target is to provide additional coverage to 280,000 homes and businesses and 10,000 miles of roads. Initial outlines of the scheme included funding of £530m from the UK’s mobile network operators with the potential for that to be matched by £500m investment from the government.

In a move designed to boost connectivity in so-called hard-to-reach places, in August 2020, a consortium led by Cisco, with principal partner the University of Strathclyde, announced what it described as a first-of-its kind project, in an effort to empower rural and poorly connected communities to build their own commercially viable and sustainable 5G wireless networks.

In this latest development, the UK government said there is an imperative to develop connectivity across the country and that data use can only grow as 5G becomes more available and is used for an increasing array of new services and applications.

Previously, the 700MHz spectrum band has mainly been used for the Freeview digital terrestrial TV broadcast service, as well as professional radio microphones used in music studios, theatres and outdoor events. Now that 20 million homes have successfully retuned their TV equipment to continue to receive channels on lower frequencies, the 700MHz band is exclusively available for mobile use.

As a result, says the government, mobile operators and other companies will be able to use 5G to develop new high data usage technologies and services to boost sectors such as manufacturing, transport and healthcare. The 700MHz spectrum band is regarded as ideal for carrying mobile signals into buildings and over long distances, such as into the UK countryside.

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The government said the clearance will also increase capacity in current 4G networks, helping to level up rural communities with greater mobile coverage, reach and reliability. It has calculated that releasing these airwaves will help to increase the total amount of radio spectrum available for mobile services in the UK by nearly one-fifth (18%).

About 1,000 workers from organisations including Arqiva, Ofcom, Digital UK, Digital Mobile Spectrum and the UK multiplex operators spent more than two million hours clearing the spectrum.

Warman said: “The smooth and successful completion of this massive infrastructure project ahead of schedule and under budget is a huge testament to the collaborative efforts of our partners. We have overseen a quiet revolution in the airwaves, which will lead to better mobile coverage for rural communities and unlock new ways for 5G to boost business productivity and improve people’s lives.”

Philip Marnick, spectrum group director at regulator Ofcom, added: “This is a major milestone for improving mobile services across the UK. It has been possible thanks to the meticulous planning and hard work from a range of organisations – all working together to make sure this huge project ran smoothly and minimising any disruption to TV viewers.

“The airwaves will now be available to use immediately after our upcoming spectrum auction, bringing better mobile and innovative new services a significant step closer.”

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