The Shared Rural Network shows the way to unlock investment

by Mark Evans, CEO, Telefonica UK

The Shared Rural Network (SRN) is a departure from how investment in rural mobile coverage has traditionally been delivered. In the past, it’s been achieved largely through competition between the network operators, underscored by the threat of statutory intervention.

However, now that 4G coverage has reached over 99% of the UK’s 30.4m premises, a smarter approach is needed to drive investment yet further.  We have reached the point where the remaining parts of rural UK in need of better coverage generally offer little or no prospect of generating sufficient business to pay for the necessary investment.

The SRN, therefore, is not based on Whitehall issuing prescriptive instructions.  That way no longer works.  Instead, it is based on the Government and mobile operators working collaboratively in pursuit of a shared goal: to improve rural coverage.

Under the SRN, the Government will deliver planning policy reform and modest financial support in the hardest to reach areas; while operators will deliver additional investment and commit to sharing infrastructure on an unprecedented scale.  As a result, 4G coverage will increase to 95% of UK landmass and improve substantially in all four home nations.

The first stage of the SRN is about 4G Partial Not Spots – those areas where at least one of the UK’s mobile network operators provide 4G coverage – but not all four of them.  This is what today’s announcement is about.

O2, together with Vodafone and Three, have agreed to fund and build over 220 mobile masts in rural areas to virtually eradicate Partial Not Spots in all four nations of the UK.

The second stage of the SRN will be about addressing Total Not Spots – those parts of the UK that currently do not receive 4G services from any operator. These remoter areas are currently excluded from the opportunities offered by digital connectivity and we want to put that right.

When the SRN is completed in 2026, the UK landmass where all four operators provide 4G coverage will rise from the current level of 66% to 84%; all operators will cover at least 90% of UK landmass; and 4G services will reach an additional 280,000 premises and 10,000 miles of roads.

The next step in the SRN is to secure the sites, reach rental and access agreements with site owners and win the necessary permissions from planning authorities to build the infrastructure for the Partial Not Spots element of the programme.  We have the plan, the commitment and the resources, but progress will depend on rural communities allowing us to build the infrastructure required to provide the connectivity people want and that we want to provide.

We are in a time where digital connectivity is rightly seen as an essential service for individuals, communities and businesses across the UK.  The responsibility is on all of us, therefore, to embrace new ways of working to widen access to such services.   Fresh thinking is required to deliver a step change in rural mobile coverage. That is why we proposed the SRN in the first place and have developed it in partnership with the Government and the other mobile operators.

The SRN shows that more can be achieved through partnership than through command and control.  It is a progressive model for delivering mobile infrastructure investment that should be replicated and developed in the future.  As we do so, we all need to remember that the more we share and collaborate, the more we can achieve.   The SRN, therefore, should not be summit of what we can be achieved – just the base camp.