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Residents and businesses across Northern Ireland are set to benefit from improved 4G mobile coverage, supporting crucial tourism and farming trades, as a result of network upgrades in 139 locations from operator EE, delivered under the auspices of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme.
After years of complaints by mobile consumers and businesses that the major political parties had consistently failed rural firms by lacking a credible plan to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage, the SRN programme is designed to wipe so-called notspots from the map, providing high-quality 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.
It comprises a £1.3bn project with the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, Virgin Media O2, Three and Vodafone – to improve 4G coverage and level up connectivity across the UK.
The four major telecoms operators are investing in a shared network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL), and their £532m investment is supplemented by more than £500m in government funding to eliminate total notspots.
The coverage commitments are being enforced by UK communications regulator Ofcom. The principle of the project is that through both public and private investment, the SRN is seeing new and existing phone masts built or upgraded across the UK to close down rural mobile notspots. These are areas of poor or patchy coverage that cannot receive a 4G signal from all four MNOs, or any signal at all, which holds back rural communities from experiencing the full benefits of digital.
EE said that having upgraded more than 1,500 locations across the UK already, it was on track to meet its UK-wide target of 88% 4G geographic coverage by June 2024.
For Northern Ireland specifically, 4G coverage from all mobile operators is targeted to rise to a minimum of 85% by the end of the programme, up from 79%. By the end of the SRN programme, EE says that it will have upgraded or built 164 sites in Northern Ireland – including the potential for a further 10 new mast sites – to ensure rural communities have the fast and reliable 4G connectivity they need to thrive in the digital age.
As part of its latest upgrades, EE, working in partnership with WHP Telecoms, has built a new mobile mast designed to to deliver enhanced 4G coverage across the northern part of the Mid-Ulster district and the eastern part of the Sperrins – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
This includes the villages of Moneyneany and Draperstown, Spelhoagh Mountain, as well as large sections of the B40, A6 and Glenshane Pass – one of the highest mountain roads in Northern Ireland.
The operator noted that hundreds of thousands of tourists and hikers visit the Sperrins and the surrounding towns and villages every year to enjoy its scenic beauty and local heritage, while there is also a thriving farming community. However, it is an area that has been poorly served with mobile coverage until now.
Commenting on the deployment and what it could mean to businesses across Northern Ireland, Suzanne Wylie, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber), said: “The Shared Rural Network initiative has a strategically important role to play in delivering improved connectivity to businesses and more rural communities across Northern Ireland.
“To be competitive, businesses in all parts of NI need access to fast and reliable digital infrastructure, so this investment is very good news for the economy. The upgrades from EE will help businesses become better connected to their customers and suppliers, whilst also making everyday transactions like electronic payments, online marketing and banking operate more efficiently.”
Read more about the SRN
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