The UK government is set to release £500m of funding for the Shared Rural Network to improve mobile access in far-flung areas by adding new infrastructure and convincing operators to share their antennas with rivals.
Formally announced in March 2020, the deal also includes the UK's four mobile providers – EE, Three, O2, and Vodafone – investing in a network of new and existing masts that is administered by a new jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited. The providers are expected to chip in around £530m of their own money to facilitate this.
The aim of the project is to reduce the number of cellular "dead spots", extending 4G LTE coverage to 95 per cent of the nation by the end of 2025, with Northern Ireland and Scotland expected to benefit the most. Work commenced in mid-2020, with Devauden in Wales the first rural settlement to receive a mobile upgrade. This was followed by Longnor, a Peak District village on the outskirts of leafy spa town Buxton.
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The project is intended to bring improved competition in rural parts, with carriers sharing some phone masts. In January, three UK operators – O2, Three, and Vodafone – announced plans to build and share 222 rural mobile masts, with the work divided evenly. The lion's share, 124, will be located in Scotland. A further 54 will be based in England, 33 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland.
By convincing carriers to share infrastructure, the government said it hopes to increase the number of areas with access to 4G coverage from all four operators from 66 per cent to 84 per cent.
Separately, EE said last month it would upgrade more than 500 4G sites this year to extend rural coverage. These include 333 locations in England, 132 in Scotland, 76 in Wales, and 38 in Northern Ireland.
In a statement, Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure and former Telegraph tech hack, said: "The Shared Rural Network is a key part of the government's infrastructure revolution to level up and unlock new economic opportunities in every corner of the UK.
"Mobile firms are making great progress boosting 4G services in countryside communities as part of their side of this landmark agreement. With the publication of this notice, we shall now push on with making patchy or poor coverage a thing of the past as we build back better from the pandemic."
The Shared Rural Network will be overseen by communications watchdog Ofcom, which has the ability to fine carriers up to 10 per cent of their revenue should they fail to meet their obligations.
Previous government attempts to improve connectivity in rural areas have been criticised. An independent review of the Superfast Programme, published earlier this year, found "no conclusive evidence" that government intervention improved speeds in less population-dense areas.
Separately, the government has somewhat diluted its plans to prioritise rural areas in the ongoing gigabit rollout, cutting back on funds that would be used to wire-up the remotest 20 per cent of the country. ®