Mobile operators strike £1bn mast sharing deal to improve rural 4G

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The government has detailed a £1 billion project that will see all four major UK mobile operators share infrastructure in rural areas, increasing 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the UK land mass by 2025.

Talks between the various parties had been ongoing for several months, with the government determined to improve rural coverage and operators eager to avoid coverage licence obligations at the next auction of 5G spectrum.

Ofcom says and only 67 per cent of the UK’s geographic area is completely covered while seven per cent of the country can’t receive a 4G signal at all.

Uk rural 4G coverage

In exchange for the abolition of coverage obligations, the mobile operators would invest £530 million to open and share existing masts in parts of the country where coverage is available from at least one operator but not all. The government would then provide up to £500 million to build new masts in ‘total not spots’ where there is no 4G coverage from any operator.

The government will also make infrastructure built as part of the Emergency Service Network (ESN) available top operators, adding an additional two per cent of coverage. In total, 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads could be included in the project.

“We are determined to make sure no part of the country is left behind when it comes to mobile connectivity,” said Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan. “We are closing in on a deal with the mobile network operators so those living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable mobile coverage they need and deserve. 

“Brokering an agreement for mast sharing between networks alongside new investment in mobile infrastructure will mean people get good 4G signal no matter where they are or which provider they’re with.”

A deal has not yet been formalised, but could be reached as early as next year. The chief executives of EE, O2,Three and Vodafone have praised the deal, claiming it to be a “world first” and a “step change” in the way that all operators delivering mobile coverage.

The Shared Rural Network (SRN) will also end calls for a national roaming network that would allow customers of one operator to switch to another network if they can’t get a signal. This would effectively see operators carrying their rival’s traffic. Operators had opposed such a move, arguing they would simply stop investing in network infrastructure as a result.

“Proposals to finally boost much-needed 4G coverage across the UK are positive and should help consumers access a better signal, but government and industry must now urgently clarify how these plans will deliver the right level of geographic coverage to match what people actually need,” added Caroline Normand, director of advocacy at Which?

“For people to reap the benefits as soon as possible, government must ensure that action is immediate and that progress can be measured. Consumers also need to have a real choice of providers in all areas if they are going to see improvements."

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.