The BT-owned EE mobile network has announced plans to upgrade its 4G network in more than 500 areas in 2021 as part of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) initiative to extend coverage in rural areas across the UK.
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 claimed would 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 that 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” by 2024. The investment will then be supplemented by more than £500m in government funding to eliminate total not-spots. The coverage commitments will be enforced by UK regulator Ofcom.
Phase one of the scheme was announced on 27 January 2021 with launch plans by Vodafone, Three UK and O2. Now EE has come on board and has committed to upgrading its 4G network in 110 areas since the SRN deal was signed in March 2020 to bring improved connectivity to each UK nation.
A further 469 upgrades will follow by the end of this year, meaning a total of 579 areas will benefit from extended EE 4G coverage by the end of 2021. Of these, 333 will be in England, 132 in Scotland, 76 in Wales and 38 in Northern Ireland. As per the guidelines of the SRN scheme, all sites have been made available for other operators to share.
Philip Jansen, chief executive of BT Group, said: “Reliable connectivity is important wherever you live, work or travel, and we are committed to improving and adding coverage to even the most remote areas. The investment BT has made in rural areas to date means we already have the infrastructure in place needed to extend our 4G coverage footprint further, minimising the number of new sites we need to build.
“There are many places where EE is the only provider with 4G coverage today, offering the other operators an opportunity to share our existing sites to plug gaps in their networks and improve mobile performance for everyone.”
In extending its 4G network to cover areas with high summer demand, EE says its 4G network now covers 94% of roads in Great Britain, all coastal locations and all 15 national parks. EE calculates that coverage in national parks has increased by more than 200km2, the equivalent of more than 40,000 football fields.
Mike McKinley, chair of National Parks England, said: “The extension, and introduction, of 4G coverage across more rural areas is welcome news for national park communities and visitors, and will help meet increased demand for fast, reliable connectivity. Digital connectivity is a vital part of modern life, and this news will also benefit the residents of national parks, many of whom currently live in isolated areas with no access to mobile coverage.”
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