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UK government reveals full extent of benefits of mobile, fibre development schemes

Scotland, Wales and North East England set to benefit most from mobile coverage boost under £1bn scheme with more than 230,000 Welsh homes and businesses to get access to faster broadband through Project Gigabit, and nearly 1,000 public buildings and 150,000 homes and businesses in Northern Ireland to get full-fibre connections

In an attempt to rebut criticism that its infrastructure development schemes announced just as it took office, and already scaled back, would not meet high expectations, the UK government has published figures showing how much mobile coverage will increase across the UK once its Shared Rural Network (SRN) scheme is completed. 

The maps and figures published show that the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Mid and West Wales, and the North East of England will see the largest increases in 4G signal coverage thanks to the UK government’s £1bn mobile connectivity programme.

The £1.3bn SRN programme was first proposed in October 2019, aiming to wipe so-called “not spots” from the map, providing what the UK 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.

The UK government said uplifts in 4G coverage will allow people to seize the benefits of technology to stay connected, shop online and stream entertainment on the go. It will also power economic growth, helping people to set up and run businesses from anywhere in the UK.

In practice, the scheme is made possible through a partnership between the UK’s four major telecoms operators – EEO2Three and Vodafone – which will jointly invest in a network of new and existing shared phone masts, 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.

The network 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.

Phase one of the scheme was announced on 27 January 2021, and aimed to extend the proportion of UK landmass where all mobile networks provide 4G services from 67% to 84%, and virtually eliminate partial not spots.

Scotland will benefit the most of the four home nations, with coverage from all four mobile network operators (MNOs) to be delivered to almost three-quarters (74%) of Scotland’s landmass by the end of the programme. Once achieved, this would represent an increase of two-thirds and up from 42% currently.

Wales will see the next highest increases – with coverage from all four operators across its geographic areas increasing by more than a third, from 58% to 80%. Northern Ireland will see 4G from all four MNOs rise to 85% of its landmass, up from 79% in 2020. The North East of England will see total 4G coverage jump from 68% to 86%.

The SRN programme has also kicked off work to end “total not spots” – areas which have no coverage from any operator. It has begun searching for, acquiring and building publicly funded masts to be shared between all four MNOs.

Effective immediately, the UK government has launched a consultation with the telecoms industry to identify any existing infrastructure which can be utilised to end total not spots. It wants to reduce the need to build new phone masts and help to make sure public funds are used effectively.

In addition to enhancing national mobile, the UK government has also revealed the next steps in its Project Gigabit scheme to build lightning-fast fixed broadband connections to homes and businesses in the most rural and remote parts of the UK.

First announced in March 2021, the scheme aims to deliver next-generation fixed gigabit broadband to more than a million homes and businesses in what are regarded as hard-to-reach places across the UK.

Up to 234,000 hard-to-reach Welsh homes and businesses are now in line to receive gigabit broadband through the programme. This includes rural towns and villages in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, the Isle of Anglesey, Pembrokeshire and Powys. 

On top of this, the government is also announcing a further £24mn to fund the roll-out of gigabit broadband in 10 local authority areas in Northern Ireland as part of the Full Fibre Northern Ireland (FFNI) scheme, which will see 969 hospitals, GP surgeries, ambulance and fire stations, community and leisure centres, council offices and other public buildings connected to gigabit-capable networks.

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