Shared Rural Network

O2, Three and Vodafone to build and share 222 mobile masts to boost 4G rural coverage

All four nations of the United Kingdom set to benefit from new investment to eliminate Partial Not Spots.

O2, Three and Vodafone are teaming up 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).

This programme of investment will increase coverage in each of the UK nations. 124 new sites will 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% to 84%, 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 £500m 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% of UK landmass, with a combined coverage of 95%.

In Northern Ireland the SRN will see 4G coverage rise to at least 85% of landmass from 75%; in Scotland it will rise to at least 74% from 42%; in England it will rise from 81% to 90%; and in Wales it will rise to at least 80% from 58%.

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, said:

“I’m delighted to see major progress being made to banish ‘not spots’ of poor or patchy mobile coverage. 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 £1bn programme to improve rural mobile coverage and was agreed by the mobile network operators, Government and Ofcom in March 2020.  Funded by the mobile industry and Government, investment will be made in new and existing phone masts to increase all operators’ 4G coverage to at least 90% of UK landmass and their aggregate coverage to 95% by 2026. 

It will provide guaranteed coverage to an additional 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads and boost ‘in car’ coverage.

Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said:

“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.  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.”

The Shared Rural Network (SRN) is a departure from how investment in rural mobile coverage has traditionally been delivered. In the past, it’s been achieved largely through competition between the network operators, underscored by the threat of statutory intervention.

However, now that 4G coverage has reached over 99% of the UK’s 30.4m premises, a smarter approach is needed to drive investment yet further.  We have reached the point where the remaining parts of rural UK in need of better coverage generally offer little or no prospect of generating sufficient business to pay for the necessary investment.

The SRN, therefore, is not based on Whitehall issuing prescriptive instructions.  That way no longer works.  Instead, it is based on the Government and mobile operators working collaboratively in pursuit of a shared goal: to improve rural coverage.

Under the SRN, the Government will deliver planning policy reform and modest financial support in the hardest to reach areas; while operators will deliver additional investment and commit to sharing infrastructure on an unprecedented scale.  As a result, 4G coverage will increase to 95% of UK landmass and improve substantially in all four home nations.

The first stage of the SRN is about 4G Partial Not Spots – those areas where at least one of the UK’s mobile network operators provide 4G coverage – but not all four of them.  This is what today’s announcement is about.

Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK, said:

“Mobile connectivity is absolutely critical for communities around the UK helping to support local economies and keeping people connected with their friends and family. 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.”

The second stage of the SRN will be about addressing Total Not Spots – those parts of the UK that currently do not receive 4G services from any operator. These remoter areas are currently excluded from the opportunities offered by digital connectivity and we want to put that right.

When the SRN is completed in 2026, the UK landmass where all four operators provide 4G coverage will rise from the current level of 66% to 84%; all operators will cover at least 90% of UK landmass; and 4G services will reach an additional 280,000 premises and 10,000 miles of roads.

The next step in the SRN is to secure the sites, reach rental and access agreements with site owners and win the necessary permissions from planning authorities to build the infrastructure for the Partial Not Spots element of the programme.  We have the plan, the commitment and the resources, but progress will depend on rural communities allowing us to build the infrastructure required to provide the connectivity people want and that we want to provide.

Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK, said:

“We know connectivity is vital and the only way to fill the holes in the UK’s mobile coverage is to work together. 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.

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