UK rural mobile scheme in danger of missing coverage targets

House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts slams progress and reporting to date on flagship UK mobile connectivity scheme, and warns of potential funding issues that will hamper development

As the record of the UK government is being in assessed during the general election period, expanded fixed broadband and mobile networks across the country are regarded as unarguable achievements, yet a House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) report is warning that the current pace of the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology’s (DSIT’s) Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme may not be sustainable to increase 4G coverage to 95% of UK landmass by December 2025.

Moreover, in its Supporting mobile connectivity report, the PAC criticised the UK mobile industry in general for its public reporting of mobile connectivity across the country, noting that it was not fit for purpose. It said UL telecoms regulator Ofcom’s data for measuring connectivity often did not reflect the experience of the public, adding that people often experience worse coverage than reported because of local geography or building materials used in premises.

The PAC said DSIT fundamentally lacked information on whether mobile network operators are on track to meet targets to improve connectivity for road users and premises, and has insufficient data to judge whether connectivity on UK railways was improving.

Launched in 2020, the £1.3bn SRN programme comprises a joint initiative between the UK’s four mobile network operators – EE, VMO2, Three and Vodafone – and the UK government to extend 4G connectivity to 95% of the UK’s landmass by the end of 2025. The founding principle is that through both public and private investment, new and existing phone masts will be built or upgraded across the UK to close down so-called rural mobile notspots.

Under the scheme, the four operators 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 operators’ £532m investment is being complemented by more than £501m in government funding.

The PAC report noted that four years into the programme, mobile coverage stands at 93.1%. Moreover, it notes that to meet the 95% target, progress will need to continue at the same rate as the past year, even though the remaining locations to see enhanced and new infrastructure will be even harder to reach and connect.

The PAC warns that this pace may not be sustainable, and the report revealed that three of the four mobile network operators have already advised DSIT that they are each unlikely to meet interim obligations, set by UK regulator Ofcom, to increase their own 4G coverage to 88% of UK landmass by 30 June 2024.

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The PAC observed that government investment in the programme was subject to cost pressures that, combined with delivery challenges, means installing new masts will cost more than expected. It added that DSIT was not yet certain how much the programme’s costs will rise as a result of these pressures, how much of any cost increase will be borne by the taxpayer or whether cost pressures will affect mobile network operators’ ability to achieve coverage targets.

Furthermore, DSIT has not yet confirmed which specific areas are in the 5% of the UK that will not have 4G connectivity, and it does not yet have a plan to ensure people in these areas are not left behind. PAC stated bluntly that DSIT is yet to communicate to stakeholders as to how any gains from increased mobile connectivity will translate into better outcomes for consumers and businesses, especially in areas with very low populations.

In its conclusions, the PAC said that while it recognised that the DSIT has a strategy for supporting 5G, it was unconvinced about what it has achieved to date for its £400m investment or how it will demonstrate progress.

As the current parliament drew to a close, and as a result the current committee’s activities, the PAC said it wanted to encourage its successor to keep a close eye on the above issues concerning both 4G and 5G mobile connectivity, and to continue to hold DSIT to account for progress on both.

It also pointed out that new technologies – such as low orbiting satellites – were emerging very fast, and that the new government needs to consider these in conjunction with its other policies to ensure investment produces the most favourable results.

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