O2, Three, Vodafone team to enhance rural mobile coverage

Three of the UK’s leading mobile operators announce plan to build and share infrastructure to boost 4G rural coverage in the first part of a national scheme to improve mobile connectivity in hard-to-reach places

In the first stage of the UK government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, which aims to support the deployment of 5G and extend 4G mobile coverage to hitherto badly served rural areas, O2, Three and Vodafone are joining forces to build and share 222 new mobile masts to boost rural coverage across the country.

The £1.3bn SRN programme was first proposed in October 2019, aiming to wipe so-called “not spots” from the map, providing what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. This followed years of complaints by mobile consumers and businesses that the major political parties had consistently failed rural businesses by lacking a credible solution to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage.

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 invest in a network of new and existing phone masts they will 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 “not spots” – areas where there is currently only coverage from at least one, but not all operators. The investment will then be supplemented by more than £500m of government funding to eliminate total not spots – 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.

This first stage in the programme is designed to extend the proportion of UK landmass where all mobile networks provide 4G services from 67% to 84%, and virtually eliminate partial not spots. The build out will extend across the UK and increase coverage in each home nation with 124 new sites built in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland and 54 in England, with each operator leading on 74 of the new sites.

The exact number and location of masts will be subject to finding suitable sites, obtaining power supply and backhaul, and securing the necessary permissions through the planning system. However, the UK government has promised that when operational, the SRN will see 4G coverage in Northern Ireland rise to at least 85% of landmass from 75%; in Scotland from 42% to 74%; in England from 81% to 90%; and in Wales from 58% to at least 80%.

The construction of the new masts will begin in 2021 and is scheduled to be completed by 2024 in line with the agreement reached with the UK government and Ofcom. The three mobile operators will now engage with local stakeholders and other key parties to ensure what the UK government calls a “timely and efficient” roll-out that delivers 4G connectivity in rural communities, offering customers in very remote areas increased choice and fuller value from their contracts where they live, work or travel.

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Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said: “The Shared Rural Network is a new and more collaborative way of delivering greater investment in infrastructure to improve mobile digital connectivity - a high impact enabler of economic growth. I am delighted that O2 is working in partnership with other mobile operators to deliver the Shared Rural Network, which will support individuals, businesses and communities across rural Britain.”

“We know connectivity is vital and the only way to fill the holes in the UK’s mobile coverage is to work together,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery. “Our unique collaboration with O2 and Three will deliver 222 new sites in parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that need better connectivity. Delivering the Shared Rural Network will make a huge difference to communities across the UK.”

Three UK CEO Robert Finnegan added: “Mobile connectivity is absolutely critical for communities around the UK, helping to support local economies and keeping people connected with their friends and family. The Shared Rural Network will have a transformative effect on coverage across the UK and it is great to be working with the rest of the industry to achieve this.”

However, conspicuous by its absence in the announcement was BT-owned network provider EE. Soon after the final details for the SRN were announced, in particular funding, BT complained in January 2020 that although it 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.

BT said it was only “fair and reasonable” that such investments and the value of the sites were both taken into account and needed to be recognised when others come to “share” them.

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