Delivering for Britain with a Shared Rural Network

Great strides have been made to improve mobile coverage in recent years by investment that has been delivered and entirely funded by the UK’s four mobile phone operators. O2 began rolling out its 4G network in 2013 and four years later was providing coverage to 98% of the population. We now reach over 99% and are investing more in our network than we have ever done before.

While 4G coverage for UK premises is almost universal, only 67% of UK landmass receives 4G coverage from all four operators, while about 7% of the UK receives no 4G coverage from any operator. That’s not good enough and we want to put it right.

Broadly speaking, the industry now provides coverage in almost every location where there is a business case for doing so. The investment approach of the past, therefore, will not meet the needs of the future. What is needed is a new and collaborative approach in which the industry, government and Ofcom work together to enable coverage to be massively extended in rural Britain.

That is why O2 and the other operators have together developed the Shared Rural Network (SRN) proposal. If we all play our part – the industry, government and Ofcom – the SRN will increase all-operator geographic coverage from the current level of 67% to 92%, Partial Not Spots will almost all disappear and over 3,700sq miles of the UK will for the first time be covered by 4G. However, if any participant fails to play their part, the outcomes of the SRN will be diminished and scaled down.

In stage one of the SRN, it is proposed that the four operators fund and develop a network of infrastructure, which we will all share and use. The existing infrastructure of the different operators will be transformed in to a single, shared network asset. This programme of work will virtually eliminate Partial Not Spots.

Stage two is focused on addressing Total Not Spots. We propose that additional infrastructure sites be built or upgraded – again, used and shared by all the operators – to bring 4G coverage to parts of the UK for the very first time.

What role is required by government and Ofcom to ensure the successful delivery of the SRN?

Government must continue and accelerate its planning policy reforms of recent years to put mobile connectivity on a par with other essential services and to make network extension more efficient and more deliverable. It also needs to provide a modest level of funding to enable the additional sites to be built under stage two.

Ofcom needs to remove the coverage obligations that it is intending to attach to the forthcoming auction of mobile spectrum. Why? Because the SRN delivers a better outcome: while coverage obligations may require one or two operators to provide better geographic coverage, the SRN will deliver better coverage from all operators.

I am grateful for the constructive dialogue we have had with the DCMS and Ofcom over the SRN in recent months and look forward to further engagement. There is a shared commitment to accelerate coverage improvements in rural areas – the SRN gives us all an opportunity to convert that commitment to a shared programme of action. This would be good news for consumers and businesses across rural Britain.