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Rural Scotland, Wales to get £1bn from Shared Rural Network pot, promised huge gains in next four... years

Double-digit LTE coverage increases projected for low-population areas

Far-flung parts of Scotland and Wales have been promised a major boost in mobile connectivity by 2025, according to a roadmap for the Shared Rural Network that UK government published today.

Forecasts released this morning by the Shared Rural Network project claimed that come 2025 - the stated end of the programme (we're not holding our breath) - 74 per cent of Scotland will have coverage from all four networks, up from the 44 per cent figure listed in Ofcom's 2020 Connected Nations Report.

The percentage of Scotland's landmass expected to have coverage from at least one carrier was also expected to rise from 81 per cent to 91 per cent. Although all electoral regions in Scotland are expected to see a degree of improvement in service, some regions will benefit more than others.

The Highlands and Islands are scheduled to see the area covered by all carriers with LTE networks soar from just 26 per cent to 68 per cent. Meanwhile, the percentage of area with coverage from at least one network is expected to rise from 73 per cent to 91 per cent.

South Scotland, which stretches from Kilmarnock to the borders, will see the area covered by all four networks grow from just 55 per cent to 81 per cent, with 4G availability from at least one carrier climbing by nine points to 97 per cent.

The Shared Rural Network project was similarly bullish about its plans for Wales, predicting the area receiving a 4G signal from all four carriers will increase by a third in the next four or five years, from 60 per cent today to 80 per cent by close of 2025.

It's good up North

LTE coverage in England and Northern Ireland is also expected to see a modest bump by the close of the project, albeit not to such a great extent as the other home nations. Again, some regions are expected to benefit more than others, with one notable example being the North East of England, which encompasses Yorkshire and the Northumbrian countryside.

The area covered by all four carriers in the North East is expected to grow from 68 per cent to 86 per cent. Around 98 per cent of the region will have LTE coverage from at least one network, if the Shared Rural Network's rollout goes to plan.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden described the rises as an "important milestone" in the government's plans to "level up the country, improve people's lives and increase prosperity across the length and breadth of our United Kingdom."

Formalised in March last year, the Shared Rural Network is a £1bn investment to increase the number of 4G LTE mobile masts in rural Britain, and to reduce the number of "partial notspots" where coverage is available from one or two carriers, but not all.

The government has said taxpayers subsidise half of the costs, with networks picking up the rest of the tab. The project aims to address historic underinvestment in Britain's regions, where a comparatively low population density and technological challenges have deterred carriers from deploying much-needed equipment.

Networks are obligated to hit certain coverage targets, with Ofcom empowered to fine those that fail to do so.

2025 you say?

That's probably for the best. Government-led connectivity programmes often fail to miss their ambitious targets, with the original Superfast programme failing to measurably improve broadband access in the remotest parts of the country, and the current full-fibre programme revised downwards from its original goal of country-wide coverage by 2025.

The opinion that the UK won't hit anything close to 85 per cent gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is shared by industry, with a cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee finding in its "Broadband and the Road to 5G" report last year that there is "no genuine belief" within the sector that the goals are achievable. This sentiment was echoed by the National Audit Office (NAO), which remarked that delivering UK-wide connectivity would require a fourfold increase in deployment rates, as well as "roadworks on most UK roads".

Although LTE is hardly cutting edge, in many rural regions it surpasses the performance of fixed-line data connections and could serve as a stopgap until 5G coverage spreads outwards from cities.

This might happen sooner than later. In the most recent Ofcom spectrum auction, carriers spent big on 700MHz spectrum, which is well suited for long-distance 5G connectivity.

The sole exception was Vodafone, which said it plans to reuse its existing 900MHz spectrum holdings for the same purpose. ®

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