UK's O2, Three and Vodafone team to build 222 masts

The UK's Shared Rural Network (SRN) program took something of a step forward this week after a somewhat slow start following its launch in March 2020.

Three of the country's four mobile network operators have now announced plans to build and share 222 mobile masts to improve 4G network coverage in rural areas where mobile broadband services are patchy at best – so-called "partial not-spots."

Telefónica-owned O2 UK, CK Hutchison's Three UK and Vodafone UK issued a joint press release on Wednesday saying that the construction of the masts will "deliver the first stage" of the SRN, with work scheduled to start in 2021 and be completed in 2024. BT-owned EE did not participate in the announcement.

Some 124 new sites will be built in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland and 54 in England, with each operator leading on 74 of the new sites. However, the operators warned that the exact number and location of masts will be subject to finding suitable sites, obtaining power supply and backhaul, and securing the necessary permissions through the planning system.

The operators claim that the move will "virtually eliminate" partial not-spots, extending the proportion of UK landmass where all mobile networks provide 4G services from 67% to 84%.

The operators are funding the construction of the shared masts as part of their £532 million (US$731 million) commitment to eliminate almost all partial not-spots. More than £500 million ($686.7 million) of government funding has also been earmarked to help eliminate total not-spots – hard-to-reach areas where there is currently no coverage from any operator.

EE playing more of a lone role

The UK's four mobile network operators and UK government ministers signed the SRN agreement in March last year, but progress has been slow to date with just a few announcements on new shared sites.

EE did not participate in the latest announcement to build 222 sites, but the BT-owned operator is less affected by rural not-spots than its three rivals and indicated it is able to meet the requirements of its SRN targets through upgrades to its existing sites.

An EE spokesperson said: "Our historic investment into rural coverage means we already deliver the widest 4G network across the UK, helping to meet our Shared Rural Network target. We've built more than 600 new rural sites over the past few years and we've offered to make these available to other operators to support them to improve their own rural coverage."

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EE pointed to the fact that the December 2020 Connected Nations report from Ofcom "put our 4G geographic coverage leadership at 85%" – more than three percentage points ahead of its nearest rival. Three UK brings up the rear with 79% UK geographic coverage.

Of course, EE is also under pressure to meet geographic coverage targets as part of its contract to provide the 4G network that underpins the UK's Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The aim of the SRN is to increase all operators' 4G coverage to at least 90% of UK landmass and their aggregate coverage to 95% by 2026. It intends to provide guaranteed coverage to an additional 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads.

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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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