The Post-Brexit Investment Opportunity for Mobile and UK plc

Over 3½ years after the EU referendum, the UK left the EU on Friday evening last week.  Since the general election there has been a desire in Government to look forward with renewed ambition and a fresh start to build a strong post-Brexit future for the UK.  The Chancellor has echoed this sentiment, billing the Budget that will follow on March 11th as an event to “open a new chapter for our economy and launch a decade of renewal.”

At O2 we share the Government’s desire to act on the issues that will most powerfully support the post-Brexit economy and enable people in all parts of the UK to participate and share in that growth.

The good news is that there are two digital policy levers that can be pulled now to deliver a boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economy by maximising mobile infrastructure investment and supporting better coverage in rural areas.

The first of these is the Shared Rural Network (SRN) – an industry led programme to increase all-operator 4G coverage from 67% of UK landmass to 92%, virtually eradicating Partial Not Spots and bringing 4G coverage to over 3,700sq miles of the UK for the first time.

The SRN requires all four mobile network operators to deliver additional investment and an unprecedented level of infrastructure-sharing; it requires the Government to deliver planning policy reform and a modest level of funding; and it requires Ofcom to change its forthcoming spectrum auction rules and amend the licences of the mobile network operators.

The Government announced in October that it was minded to support the SRN.  It was encouraging to then see the Prime Minister include the SRN among the top ten priorities for his new Government. All parties now need to build on the collaborative progress that has been made in developing the SRN, so it can be fully adopted and ready for implementation by the time of the Budget on March 11th.

The second issue is Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of 5G mobile spectrum.  The introduction of 4G saw an increase in data consumption of up to 100% year-on-year on our network and we expect a similar rise as 5G devices become more widely used.  Additional spectrum is needed to ensure mobile operators have the capacity to meet that demand – an essential requirement if the UK is to be a leading digital economy.  O2 is determined to make the necessary investment to secure the spectrum we need to support growth and customer service.

The spectrum auction must allow all operators access to contiguous, unbroken blocks of spectrum, as regulators in other countries are doing.   This will allow all mobile network operators in the UK to maximise the quality and reliability of 5G services.  We cannot tolerate a situation where some – but not all – operators have this benefit, as it would fracture the competitive four-player mobile market that has consistently delivered more for less.

At the start of this year Ofcom reported that since 2016 average mobile data consumption and phone minutes have increased by 146% and 6%, respectively, while average mobile tariff prices have gone down 19% over the same period.  Ofcom also found that UK mobile prices are lower than in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the USA.

Against this ‘more for less’ backdrop, the Government and Ofcom must act on the SRN and 5G spectrum auction to unlock the necessary infrastructure investment.  The Government’s Statement of Strategic Priorities for Ofcom says that “promoting investment should be prioritised over interventions to further reduce retail prices.”  That is an ambition we should all get behind, as it holds the key to delivering a successful post-Brexit future for our country and a world class digital economy across the UK.