UK government confirms financial support for Shared Rural Network programme

UK government ponies up its share of £1bn infrastructure project, designed to reduce partial not-spots in UK locations

In a move that it says moves it a step closer to delivering better mobile coverage in rural areas, the UK government has published its transparency notice for its Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, and will now proceed with a £500m investment designed to provide all corners of the UK with better mobile connectivity.

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 already 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 scheme also saw a commitment by the UK government to supplement the operators’ investment with more than £500m of funding.

Phase one of the scheme was announced on 27 January 2021, with launch plans by Vodafone, Three UK and O2. 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.

In February 2021, BT-owned telco EE revealed its participation in the mass mobile roll-out, committing to upgrading its 4G network in 110 areas 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.

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O2 commissioned research firm Development Economics to model the benefits the SRN would bring to rural businesses and individuals, and found that once the first phase of the roll-out had been completed, rural businesses situated near new mobile mast sites could potentially benefit from an annual increase in turnover of £187.7m.

It added that access to the Shared Rural Network for individuals and businesses could also allow these rural communities to contribute an extra £58.9m to the UK economy each year, at a time when the economy needed it most.

For its part, the UK government said that the Shared Rural Network would be a key part of its infrastructure plan to level up and unlock new economic opportunities in every corner of the UK. It added that its funding would enable new masts to be built, get rid of total not spots, and enable upgrades of radio equipment built as part of the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) Programme which will enable mobile network operators (MNOs) to provide even more coverage.

“Mobile firms are making great progress boosting 4G services in countryside communities as part of their side of this landmark agreement,” said Matt Warman, UK minister for digital infrastructure. “With the publication of this notice, we shall now push on with making patchy or poor coverage a thing of the past as we build back better from the pandemic.”

With the £500m in funding now available, the government and the MNOs said they were confident that combined coverage will be delivered to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025, with areas around the UK starting to see improvements to 4G coverage long before completion.

The measure has been developed in compliance with the UK’s subsidy obligations under the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement, including the publication of a transparency notice.

The Shared Rural Network notice sets out how the programme will pursue better coverage to remedy market failures in a proportionate way, and how the subsidy will mitigate any negative effects to EU-UK trade and investment. 

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