Virgin Media O2 Shared Rural Network roll-out reaches new heights

Operator claims major milestone in commitment to £1bn UK rural communications programme after it rolled out reliable 4G coverage across 100 sites on Scotland’s second-largest island

Just weeks after revealing the advances it said it has made in providing enhanced mobile coverage to the Shetland Islands to transform mobile connectivity for the community, Virgin Media O2 is reporting another milestone in the UK’s Shared Rural Network programme, after upgrading connectivity on the Isle of Skye, the second-largest island in Scotland.

The £1.3bn SRN programme is designed to wipe so-called not-spots from the map, providing high-quality 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.

Through both public and private investment, the SRN will see new and existing phone masts built or upgraded across the UK to close down rural mobile not-spots.

The UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, Virgin Media O2, Three and Vodafone – have committed to improving 4G coverage and levelling-up connectivity across the UK, which has seen them invest in a shared network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL).

The deadline from UK comms regulator Ofcom for all of the operators to meet their individual initial SRN coverage targets for partial not-spot areas is June 2024. To deliver the first phase of the programme, all UK mobile operators have committed to upgrading or building mobile infrastructure and extending the reach of their 4G networks to eliminate partial not-spots.

The second phase of the SRN, publicly funded by the UK government, is due to be completed in 2027, and will develop shared masts to bring 4G connectivity to areas with no existing mobile service.

The new deployment on the Isle of Skye sees the island become the 100th site to benefit from improved mobile connectivity. The sites are controlled by Virgin Media O2, but customers of Three and Vodafone are also able to access services from the roll-out. Taking into account the progress of Three and Vodafone, VMO2 customers can now benefit from improved 4G services at 146 rural locations.

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Of the 100 rural sites that have been built or upgraded by VMO2 so far, 78 are in some of the most remote parts of Scotland, including Shetland, Ardross and Argyll & Bute; 19 are in rural parts of England, including parts of Yorkshire, Suffolk and Kent; and three are in Northern Ireland.

“We’re going to extreme lengths connecting the most remote corners of the UK to deliver our share of the Shared Rural Network,” said Virgin Media O2 chief technology officer Jeanie York.

“This investment is vital to ensure we provide fast and reliable coverage to all areas of the UK. With so much of our modern life taking place online, rural communities deserve the same standard of mobile connectivity as those in urban areas, and we’re proud to be stepping up and playing our part. The 100 sites we have delivered will mean that more residents, businesses and visitors in rural areas can benefit from better mobile coverage, with more locations to follow in the coming months. This work is vital in tackling the urban-rural digital divide that exists in the UK.”

Indeed, a study of Britain’s most deprived communities by operator Vodafone revealed a worrying digital divide between rural and urban areas, with nearly half (46%) of deprived rural areas classed as 5G notspots, whereas the same can only be said for 2.7% of deprived urban communities.

The Connecting the countryside report identified five areas of Britain as performing particularly poorly when it comes to a lack of connectivity and high levels of deprivation – Scotland, Wales, East Anglia, Cumbria and South West England.

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