UK telecoms operators commit to £1bn shared 4G rural network

UK operators commit to £1bn shared 4G rural network

09 March 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The UK’s four mobile operators have finally agreed to set up a Shared Rural Network (SRN) at a cost of £1 billion, half of which will come from government.

Executives from the four – BT’s EE, Telefónica’s O2, Three and Vodafone – were on their way this morning to sign a deal with the regulator, Ofcom, the government’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), along with Digital Mobile Spectrum, a jointly owned company that will oversee the project.

Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said: “The collaboration between the industry, government and Ofcom should be seen as a leading example of how to deliver infrastructure investment and we look forward to now rolling the Shared Rural Network out as quickly as possible.”

The SRN project will use Ofcom’s definition of coverage – a 95% probability of making a 90-second call successfully and a 95% chance of getting a download speed of at least 2Mbps.

The deal will particularly improve coverage in rural areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland coverage once the SRN is complete will be 91% from at least one operator and 74% from all four operators – compared with today’s 80% and 42% respectively.

By signing the agreement this afternoon the four networks will commit to spending £532 million “to close almost all partial not-spots”, said the DCMS, and they will also receive “more than £500 million of government funding to eliminate total not-spots”, where no company now provides a signal.

Ofcom will enforce the agreement and will be able to fine companies that do not comply up to 10% of gross revenue.

The deal is designed to take 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass, said the DCMS this morning. “It will provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads”, said the government. “We can also expect some further indirect improvements over time, including a boost to ‘in car’ coverage on around 45,000km of road and better indoor coverage in around 1.2 million business premises and homes.”

The SRN will see EE, O2, Three and Vodafone investing in a network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by Digital Mobile Spectrum, a company first set up some years ago to overcome the challenge of interference to TV signals by signals in some mobile spectrum.

Dave Dyson, CEO of Three, explained that “each of the four operators [will expand] to at least 90% of the UK’s geography”.

Ben Roome, CEO of Digital Mobile Spectrum, said: “In making it happen we’ll listen to rural communities and strive to maximise the benefits it will bring.”

Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless, which is building the Internet para Todos (IpT) shared 4G mobile network in Peru, said: “Network sharing is a relatively new concept to operators and they need the tools to enable them to successfully create infrastructure that doesn’t compromise on performance. … Operators and the government will need to strongly consider new approaches such as OpenRAN, if they want accelerate their vision of building affordable shared networks, to close the digital divide.”