O2, Three and Vodafone to build 222 rural 4G mobile masts

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More than 200 new 4G masts will be built in rural parts of the UK as part of the first phase of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network (SRN).

A deal was struck last year between the government and the four main operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – to build new sites and share infrastructure in areas in the country that don’t have access to all four networks.

Operators will invest £530 million to open up and share their infrastructure, and pay each other a fee for access. The government will then provide up to £500 million to build new masts in ‘total not spots’ where there is no 4G coverage from any operator. The aim is to reach 95 per cent of the UK landmass by 2025.

Shared Rural Network 4G

As part of this first phase, O2 Three and Vodafone will build 222 sites – 124 in Scotland, 54 in England, 33 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland. This expansion will extend the proportion of the UK landmass that can receive a signal from all four operators from 67% to 84%.

In Northern Ireland, the figure rises from 75% to 85%, in Wales from 58% to 80%, and England from 81% to 90%. Scotland stands to benefit the most, increasing total coverage from 42% to 72%.

The three operators point out that the number of sites and pace of rollout will be dependent on the ability to find suitable sites, source power and backhaul, and gain planning permission.  

 “I’m delighted to see major progress being made to banish ‘not spots’ of poor or patchy mobile coverage,” declared Matt Warman, minister for digital infrastructure. “This new infrastructure will unlock the potential of rural communities in all four nations and offer greater choice of fast and reliable 4G services.

“As part of this new Shared Rural Network the government is also investing half a billion pounds on new masts in areas without any signal at all meaning no one is left behind.”

EE’s absence from this phase can be explained by its pre-existing coverage advantage over the three other operators and most of the new sites being built will be in areas where EE has availability. EE believes its first phase commitments can be achieved through site upgrades.

The BT-owned operator will, however, be involved in the next stage of the SRN rollout which will see government funding used to build new sites.

SRN commitments are subject to oversight from Ofcom, which will have the power to issue fines of up to 10 per cent of an operator’s gross revenue if they fail to meet their targets.

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.