The Shared Rural Network: Connecting rural communities in the UK

by Derek McManus, Chief Operating Officer, Telefonica UK

In a year where events in Westminster have often been characterised by uncertainty, today’s announcement by the Government that it is willing to accept the Shared Rural Network (SRN) is a refreshing and welcome piece of news.

Refreshing, because the SRN is based on collaboration and partnership; and welcome, because it will deliver transformational improvements to mobile coverage in rural communities.  At a time of challenge for the UK economy, the provision of scaled up mobile connectivity in all four home nations will support the productivity and competitiveness of companies across the UK.

The SRN grew out of a recognition that a new delivery model is required for the roll-out of digital infrastructure, because the old one is no longer fit for purpose.

Mobile infrastructure investment has in the past been entirely funded by the mobile network operators. The Government and Ofcom have sought to maximise coverage through measures such the attachment of coverage obligations to spectrum licences and by brokering coverage agreements with the mobile industry.  This approach has successfully delivered 4G to over 98% of premises in the UK.

However, 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.  This situation was not going to change significantly under the old approach, because it did not address a fundamental challenge: that demand in many rural areas is not enough to cover the cost of mobile infrastructure investment.

O2 wants to put that right.  Therefore, we have advocated a new approach that brings Government, Ofcom and the industry together to support and enable investment in rural areas. Some people doubted that we would be able to agree a move away from ‘command and control’ to a collaborative agreement around the shared objective of maximising investment in rural areas to drive up coverage. It has taken nearly a year but – working closely with the other three mobile operators – we have done it.

Between now and 2026 the SRN will increase all-operator 4G landmass coverage from 67% to 92%; will virtually eradicate Partial Not Spots; and reduce Total Not Spot landmass from 7% to 3%, introducing 4G for the first time to over 3,700sq miles of the UK.

What actions will be taken by the different parties to achieve this outcome?

  • The four mobile operators will transform their different rural networks in to a single infrastructure asset they we will all share and use and invest in its expansion.
  • Ofcom will consult on removing coverage obligations from licences in next year’s spectrum auction.
  • The Government will deliver planning policy reform to make the provision of mobile infrastructure easier, quicker and more cost effective and allocate a modest level of investment to support the provision of mobile infrastructure in the more remote rural areas.

Unlike some other parts of the nation’s infrastructure, the mobile industry has a track record of completing investment projects to time and to budget.  Mobile connectivity provides an instant boost to productivity, so it is important that the Government, Ofcom and the industry now push ahead with the SRN.  After negotiation and agreement, we want to move to the delivery stage as soon as possible.  This will provide world-leading connectivity for the UK and deliver a boost to businesses and consumers across the country’s rural communities.