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UK mobile operators sign £1bn deal to share 4G infrastructure

A £1bn deal to expand rural mobile network coverage will be signed by all four major mobile network operators, the Government has announced.

Through the Shared Rural Network (SRN) project, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone will work together to deliver “strong 4G” across areas of the UK that lack sufficient infrastructure. The operators will work together by sharing existing infrastructure and expanding in areas with poor coverage.

According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2018 report, 65 per cent of the UK landmass has 4G data coverage from all four operators, but 9.3 per cent of the UK had no 4G data coverage from any operator.

The new agreement should make it easier to ramp up coverage to 90 per cent, while the burden of expanding the network to the remaining 9.3 per cent could be shared between operators. The deal means that network-combined coverage will reach 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2025. The SRN will provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads. The Government also expects some further “indirect improvements over time”, including a boost to ‘in car’ coverage on around 45,000 km of road and better indoor coverage in around 1.2 million business premises and homes.

The networks will invest £532m as part of the deal, with the aim of closing almost all partial not-spots: areas which lack coverage from all operators.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “For too many people in the countryside a bad phone signal is a daily frustration. So today we’re delivering on the Prime Minister’s 100-day promise to get a £1 billion landmark deal signed with industry to end poor and patchy mobile rural coverage. This is an important milestone to level up the country, improve people’s lives and increase prosperity across the length and breadth of our United Kingdom.”

In response to the announcement, a spokesman for industry regulator Ofcom said: “We welcome this agreement, which will make a real difference to all mobile customers right across the UK. We are making the coverage commitments legally binding by including them in operators’ licences. We’ll also monitor and report on companies’ progress in bringing better coverage to people and businesses.”

Philip Jansen, chief executive of the BT Group, which owns EE, said the Shared Rural Network is “something we can all be proud of”.

O2 boss Mark Evans commented: “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.”

Three chief executive Dave Dyson described the deal as a “game-changer for the country”.

Vodafone UK boss Nick Jeffery said: “A rural postcode should not be a barrier to receiving a decent mobile signal. Together, we have created a programme that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It will mean an end to mobile ‘not spots’ for people in the more remote areas, whether they are at home, at work or on the move. We will now get on with the job of delivering it.”

As of last month all of the networks have finally rolled out their 5G networks, but the nature of the technology means that base stations will need to be closer together to ensure coverage compared to earlier mobile network generations which could hamper 5G reception in rural areas for years to come.

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