In the first stage of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network (SRN) initiative, O2, Three and Vodafone have agreed to partner to build and share 222 new mobile masts. The masts will boost coverage in rural areas of the UK and will include 124 new sites in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland and 54 in England. To deliver this new infrastructure, the operators will split the sites between them, with each leading on 74 of the new sites.
Mast construction will begin immediately and be completed by 2024, in line with an agreement reached with the UK Government and the UK regulator Ofcom. The operators will next need to identify suitable locations for siting the masts, including securing planning permission and ensuring power and backhaul is available.
Rural areas of the UK have long had a problem with what the industry calls ‘partial not spots’. These are areas where not all mobile providers have coverage and result in restricted choice for customers. Ensuring that there is more network choice will remove regional monopolies where one operator has coverage and customers cannot shift to alternatives. It also enables network diversity for businesses, so they can create more robust business continuity plans that accommodate the scenario where there is disruption with one of their network providers.
The UK government is also committed to funding the elimination of total not spots – areas where there is no network coverage – spending £500 million to ensure 95% of the UK is covered by at least one operator.
The result of these initiatives will be that Northern Ireland will see landmass coverage for 4G rising by 10% to 85%, Scotland will see a whopping 32% rise to 74%, England a 9% increase to 90% and Wales a 22% increase to 80%.
Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, said this initiative is vital to ensure no-one is left behind and to “unlock the potential of rural communities”. The UK government is also about to embark on a consultation as to whether reforms to the Electronic Communications Code are needed to ensure that the deployment, upgrading and sharing of digital infrastructure can be more efficient and fast.
The SRN will see guaranteed coverage provided to an additional 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads in UK, boosting ‘in car’ coverage and laying the foundations for the next-generation of connected cars.
This initiative is vital to securing better coverage in the UK’s rural areas that have been left behind by network build out that has been too city-centric. The government has rightly identified that sharing the benefits of the connected world are essential both to the long-term success of the country, as well as to the mobile industry. Better connectivity will boost jobs in UK regions, alleviate poverty, and enable regional infrastructure to become more efficient – helping it take advantage of initiatives that will transform whole industries, such as Smart Farming. None of this can come too soon. UK lockdowns have revealed the stark digital divide between our cities and rural areas, with rural dwellers struggling to get a reliable and fast connection, or having to pay over the odds to do so. Mobile isn’t the only solution to this problem – full fibre is also needed. But this is a significant step in creating a fairer and more inclusive Digital Britain.