Network operators propose sharing equipment to improve coverage in rural areas
The government is supporting a potential £1bn deal that it claims could make “poor mobile phone coverage… a thing of the past”.
The UK’s four mobile network operators – EE, O2, Vodafone, and Three – have jointly agreed proposals that would see them collectively investing £530m to create a “shared rural network”. The government said that it could match this with £500m of its own funding.
The plans will see the quartet of tech firms install new mobile phone masts and renovate existing infrastructure. The intention is that consumers in remote or rural areas will be able to access the best available signal, regardless of which provider they are contracted to.
The proposals have been agreed in principle, and digital secretary Nicky Morgan said that the government wants “to see industry move quickly so we can reach a final agreement early next year”.
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“We are determined to make sure no part of the country is left behind when it comes to mobile connectivity,” she added. “We are closing in on a deal with the mobile network operators so those living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable mobile coverage they need and deserve.”
The most recent annual report from Ofcom, published in late 2018, found that 91% of the UK’s landmass has a good 4G signal from at least one network operator. But only 66% of the country’s geographic area is served by all four networks.
With coverage of 84%, EE has the most extensive 4G network – some 10 percentage points ahead of laggard O2, according to Ofcom.
The ambition of the shared rural network project is for 95% of the UK to enjoy good 4G coverage by 2025. An extra 280,000 premises and 10,000 miles of road are set to benefit, according to the government.
Government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission welcomed the announcement as “an encouraging prospect”.
“We are pleased to see government and mobile network operators working together in response to both the long-standing calls of rural communities, and our own recommendations, to ensure everyone in the UK can access essential mobile services reliably,” a spokesperson said. “We now look to government and industry to seal the deal and ensure this isn’t a call left unanswered.”
Julian McGougan, executive director of industry body techUK, was another to voice support for the plans.
“Many rural areas currently have poor connectivity which hinders not only citizens lives but economic growth and job creation,” he said. “techUK very much welcomes [this] announcement, which is part of a wider package of plans the government has already announced to enhance the nation’s connectivity, but more needs to be done to enhance access to reliable, high-speed connectivity sooner rather than later.”
McDougan added: “While the government has already made some useful changes, planning regulations still need further reform to ensure operators don’t face unnecessary delays in bringing connectivity. Additionally, all relevant public sector bodies must work closer together with industry, such as making available public infrastructure, to speed up the deployment of mobile infrastructure technology.”