UK may not hit goal of 95% mobile coverage, commons committee warns

Sitting in a not-spot in the countryside? It's not great news

The UK's mobile networks are unlikely to hit the government target for 95 percent coverage of the country by December 2025, because the remaining locations will be increasingly harder and therefore costlier to reach.

A report from House of Commons Public Accounts Committee says that to meet the 95 percent target, build-out progress will have to continue at the same rate as over the past year, but that this may not be sustainable due to increasing costs.

Announced back in 2020, the Shared Rural Network program aims to improve mobile coverage across the country, specifically addressing rural black spots. Its goal is to increase 4G coverage by the 4 mobile operators - Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three - from 91.4 percent of the UK landmass up to 95 percent by the end of next year.

Ofcom licence obligations also commit each individual mobile network operator to increase its own 4G coverage to 88 percent of the UK landmass by 30 June 2024, and to 90 percent by 31 January 2027, but the report states that 3 of the 4 mobile network operators have already advised the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) that they are unlikely to meet the upcoming June target.

According to Building Digital UK, an agency of DSIT, the operators have been averaging an increase in coverage of about 0.1 percentage points a month over the past five or six months, and the challenge is to sustain that rate of increase in order to hit the eventual target.

However, the report reckons that cost pressures and delivery challenges experienced on the program so far have led to the costs of installing new masts being higher than expected.

On the Extended Area Service element of the program, the costs are said to have risen by an estimated £44 million (about $56 million) due to VAT and inflation alone. To absorb this additional cost, DSIT is said to be considering ways it might deliver the required increase in coverage, but using fewer new masts.

For the Total Not Spot element, which targets the hardest-to-reach areas of Scotland, the report finds that cost increases have cast doubt over the overall figure, while DSIT expects that any additional costs will be funded by the mobile operators.

But Ofcom’s licence agreements with the operators allow for relief of their individual obligations if costs are deemed excessive, thus leading to uncertainty about who will foot the bill for the extra cost or whether the target for 95 percent 4G coverage will be met.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including that DSIT should work closely with the operators to get a handle on the cost increases and how these will be managed while ensuring coverage targets are met. It suggests new technologies such as connectivity provided by low Earth orbit satellites should be considered.

It also recommends that final decisions on both the locations and the number of masts should be informed by a revised cost-benefit analysis, and that DSIT should then be in a position to confirm which areas of the UK will still not have 4G coverage once the Shared Rural Network program is complete. The department should develop a plan for alternative ways of delivering connectivity to the remaining unserved areas.

Finally, the report recommends that DSIT should detail what it has achieved so far from its investment to date in 5G networks, and set more meaningful and measurable targets. It has set an ambition for standalone 5G to be available in all populated areas by 2030, but has not defined what constitutes a populated area, or the level of 5G performance it considers sufficient. ®

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