Greater 4G coverage inches closer for rural UK


Jeremy Wright, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said he is confident of securing cooperation between the four mobile operators to eliminate not spots.

He reckons the deal proposed by the four operators will progress and hit Ofcom’s targets of delivering 4G to 140,000 new homes and 95% of the UK’s landmass by 2022.

It has been a long road trying to find a solution to extending 4G coverage that is acceptable to the operators to all stakeholders.

Shared Rural Network

In May the four operators – EE, O2 UK (Telefonica), Three UK and Vodafone – agreed in principle to form a new entity, the Shared Rural Network (SRN), to build masts in areas with no coverage (not spots) and to sign reciprocal agreements to access each other’s masts elsewhere.

However, the four said from the outset that the agreement depended on Ofcom removing certain coverage terms and conditions from the upcoming 5G spectrum auction.

As Theresa May's government had not given formal approval to the proposal, there are concerns the SRN proposal could be subject to new scrutiny and  delay under the new regime.

If agreement cannot be reached by October, then it will have a knock-on effect on the 5G spectrum auction planned for later this year.

Industry surprise

The new Prime Minister has form regarding the telecoms industry: ahead of becoming the British Premier, Boris Johnson caught it by surprise when he said as PM he would want the UK to have a nationwide, full-fibre broadband infrastructure by 2025.

This is eight years sooner than the existing target and many in the industry claims it it is not feasible in that timescale.

Although huge resources are now being poured into deploying full-fibre broadband, coverage is currently less than 10%.

Proposed cooperation

Negotiations to get to this point regarding 4G coverage have been rather fractious. Exasperated by the lack of progress, in February the government resurrected the idea of so-called national roaming.

Under this scheme, customers in rural areas would connect to the strongest signal, regardless of which operator provided it. This was profoundly unpopular with all the operators. 

The SRN proposal is to fund new company by a reduction of £200 million in the annual licence fees paid by the industry.

This would replace discounts of £700 million to £800 million promised for some licences in Ofcom’s upcoming 5G spectrum auction to improve rural coverage.

4G coverage for UK premises is close to ubiquitous, but only 67% of UK landmass has 4G coverage from all four operators (designated partial not spots), and only 7% of the territory does not receive a 4G signal at all.