Three of the UK’s mobile operators – O2, Three and Vodafone – are partnering to build and share 222 new mobile masts to boost rural coverage across the United Kingdom and deliver the first stage of the Shared Rural Network (SRN), a £1 billion programme to improve rural mobile coverage agreed by the mobile network operators, Government and regulator Ofcom in March 2020.
This programme of investment will increase coverage in each of the UK nations, with 124 new sites to be built in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland, and 54 in England, with each operator leading on 74 of the new sites.
The construction of the new masts will commence in 2021 and is scheduled to be completed by 2024 in line with the agreement reached with the UK Government and Ofcom.
The three mobile operators will now engage with local stakeholders and other key parties to ensure a timely and efficient roll out that unlocks the benefits of 4G for these rural communities offering customers in very remote areas increased choice and fuller value from their contracts where they live, work or travel.
The exact number and location of masts will be subject to finding suitable sites, obtaining power supply and backhaul and securing the necessary permissions through the planning system.
The new investment as part of the programme, will extend the proportion of UK landmass where all mobile networks provide 4G services from 67 per cent to 84 per cent, and virtually eliminate Partial Not Spots (PNSs) – areas where at least one, but not all four of the UK’s mobile networks provide 4G coverage.
In addition to this privately-funded SRN investment, the Government will also spend over £500 million to go even further to eliminate areas where there is no 4G coverage from any operator. This will result in every mobile operator reaching 90 per cent of UK landmass, with a combined coverage of 95 per cent.
In Northern Ireland, the SRN will see 4G coverage rise to at least 85 per cent of landmass from 75 per cent; in Scotland it will rise to at least 74 per cent from 42 per cent; in England it will rise from 81 per cent to 90 per cent; and in Wales it will rise to at least 80 per cent from 58 per cent.
“I’m delighted to see major progress being made to banish ‘not spots’ of poor or patchy mobile coverage,” declared Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure. “This new infrastructure will unlock the potential of rural communities in all four nations and offer greater choice of fast and reliable 4G services.”
“As part of this new Shared Rural Network the government is also investing half a billion pounds on new masts in areas without any signal at all meaning no one is left behind.”
“The Shared Rural Network is a new and more collaborative way of delivering greater investment in infrastructure to improve mobile digital connectivity – a high impact enabler of economic growth,” added Mark Evans, CEO of O2. “I am delighted that O2 is working in partnership with other mobile operators to deliver the Shared Rural Network, which will support individuals, businesses and communities across rural Britain.”
“Mobile connectivity is absolutely critical for communities around the UK helping to support local economies and keeping people connected with their friends and family,” stated Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK. “The Shared Rural Network will have a transformative effect on coverage across the UK and it is great to be working with the rest of the industry to achieve this.”
“We know connectivity is vital and the only way to fill the holes in the UK’s mobile coverage is to work together,” said Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK. “Our unique collaboration with O2 and Three will deliver 222 new sites in parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that need better connectivity. Delivering the Shared Rural Network will make a huge difference to communities across the UK.”
The news comes as the Government launches a consultation on whether reforms to the Electronic Communications Code are needed to ensure that the deployment, upgrading and sharing of digital infrastructure such as phone masts can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible.
A spokesperson for the UK’s fourth mobile operator, EE, absent from the initiative’s announcement, said its historic investment into rural coverage means it already delivers the widest 4G network across the UK, helping to meet its Shared Rural Network target, and doesn’t need to build those additional sites to deliver the coverage. “We’ve built more than 600 new rural sites over the past few years and we’ve offered to make these available to other operators to support them to improve their own rural coverage,” said the company.
The second part of the Shared Rural Network is tackling total not spots, where nobody has coverage. That is the Government-funded element, which EE will be part of.