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Extending rural mobile coverage

AUTHOR: GARETH ELLIOT, HEAD OF POLICY AND COMMUNICATIONS AT MOBILE UK


Patchy mobile coverage is one of today’s real concerns as the world becomes ever more connected. In the UK, many of the rural areas currently get only partial coverage or none at all. Ofcom’s most recent data states that 91% of the country receives 4G coverage from at least one operator and 66% from all four. Having good mobile coverage is widely recognised as being essential for the future prosperity of the rural economy and rural communities. People increasingly want the flexibility to work from home, and many sectors such as farming, tourism and transport are using mobile connectivity to increase productivity and improve services. Happily, the industry and the Government agreed on an unprecedented deal on 9th March 2020 that will extend coverage and eliminate the vast majority of partial not-spots coverage by all four operators.

The proposal is called the Shared Rural Network, and it is backed by both the Government and all four of the mobile network operators, who are jointly investing £1 billion.  During the election campaign, the Prime Minister committed his Government to formalise the agreement within its first 100 days.

The Shared Rural Network programme is made up of two parts: eliminating partial not-spots and building new coverage. The industry will be investing £532 million to tackle the first part. This will involve the four network operators installing their own radio equipment on each other’s existing masts, resulting in new 4G coverage from all mobile companies. As this involves all four operators, it goes further than previous Ofcom recommendations, which would have required only two operators to extend to 90% of the UK’s landmass, and will eliminate a substantial majority of partial not-spots where currently there is only one or more operator. The second element involves the Government investing £500 million to build new masts for use by all four operators and thus extend 4G into areas where there is currently no coverage. The overall outcome from these two elements is that the four operators will provide 4G coverage to over 92% of the UK’s landmass and in addition, 95% of the UK’s geographic area, and virtually every premises, will be able to get 4G from at least one operator.

Local government will have an important role to play in ensuring that the Shared Rural Network programme runs according to plan. Upgrades and new infrastructure will require interaction with planning departments, and so having policies and guidance in place to prepare will enable more efficient deployment. Additionally, many local authorities, with strong political leadership, have already done some fantastic work to make mobile build-out easier, such as naming a single point of contact for ‘barrier busting’, and making assets available for equipment siting, on standard terms. The industry is already engaging with local authorities across the country and, in the coming months, once we have a more detailed idea of the build plan, will be seeking to reach out further. Mobile UK, as the industry body, can help facilitate early discussions and will ensure that local authorities have the right contacts.

The Shared Rural Network is an exciting project that marks a step-change in 4G coverage across the UK. It is also ambitious with completion set for 2025/26. The overall outcome from these two elements is that the four operators will each individually provide coverage to 90% of the UK’s landmass.

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