The Shared Rural Network can be just the beginning

Today’s announcement by the Government to back the Shared Rural Network (SRN) is first and foremost good news for consumers.  The UK landmass that receives 4G coverage from all four of the UK’s mobile network operators will increase from 66% to 84%; each operator will provide 4G to at least 90% of the country’s landmass; Partial Not Spots will be virtually eliminated; and over 1,800sq miles of the country will get 4G for the first time.  Work on delivering the SRN can begin immediately.

The lesson we should all learn from the SRN is that when operators, the Government and Ofcom work together to achieve a shared objective – in this case, better rural mobile coverage – progress can be made on a far bigger scale that it can under a traditional ‘command and control’ approach to regulation.

Decisions on where to provide mobile connectivity have in the past been mainly driven by the presence or otherwise of a business case.  O2 believes that this old way of working needs to change.  We know that connectivity is needed by consumers, businesses and communities, wherever they may be.  In order to meet that need, a new approach is required to ensure that your postcode does not define your quality of mobile service.

Change can, of course, be challenging. When I suggested in 2018 that major improvements to rural coverage can best be achieved by operators, the Government and Ofcom each taking collaborative steps to collectively unlock investment, some people were understandably cautious.  I am delighted that hard work by all parties since then and a commitment to partnership has now produced the SRN.

More work and a deeper level of cooperation will be required to deliver mobile connectivity to every square mile of the UK.  The SRN is a big milestone on the journey to that destination and will significantly accelerate the rollout of 4G coverage to many rural, remoter parts of the UK.  As we move the SRN from its design and agreement stage to delivery and implementation, we should all remember that it has been achieved by a shared commitment to constructive collaboration and partnership.  It offers, therefore, a positive model for delivering further advances in connectivity, beyond those that will be delivered by the SRN.

The UK has some of the lowest mobile prices in the world, but it does not yet have the best mobile coverage.  The former is one of the principal causes of the latter.  If UK prices are to remain low, it is essential that all opportunities to enable investment are identified and acted upon.

The SRN is a great example.  Another should be the forthcoming auction of 5G spectrum.  Ofcom needs to ensure that all four mobile operators have the opportunity as part of the auction process to acquire 80-100 MHz blocks of contiguous spectrum.  That will give all operators the necessary confidence to invest and to build digital leadership for the UK.

The SRN is cause for celebration and O2 is excited by the benefits it will provide for customers.  It should be just the start of a series of initiatives to maximise the investment needed to deliver the best possible mobile connectivity for everyone all the time in all parts of the UK.