Rural 4G deal can be achieved, culture secretary believes

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The Culture Secretary reportedly believes a deal between the government and mobile operators to improve rural coverage without the need for a national roaming network is near – despite the ongoing caused by a change in Prime Minister and cabinet.

Jeremy Wright told The Financial Times that he was optimistic and that improving rural coverage had been a priority in his 12 months in the role.

He added that 95 per cent landmass coverage was a “non-negotiable” objective.

UK rural mobile coverage

Although EE has committed to delivering 4G to 95 per cent of the UK’s landmass by 2020, areas with coverage from all four major operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – are less common. Ofcom’s most recent figures suggest 57 per cent of the UK’s geographic area is completely covered, while seven per cent is uncovered by any operator at all.

This has led to MPs and other organisations to call 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.

Such a move would be widely opposed, with Vodafone stating that operators would simply stop investing in network infrastructure as a result.

As an alternative, the CEOs of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have proposed a system whereby they would share radio equipment in the most rural parts of the country and a site ‘trading’ system for underserved locations.

A company, funded by a £200 million reduction in annual licence fees, would manage the system and the plans would replace a proposal by Ofcom to offer discounted 5G spectrum in exchange for coverage commitments. It would also end the spectre of a national roaming network for good.

The FT talks have been going on for months but there are fears that if a deal is not reached by October, the government could revert to its 5G auction plans – a move that could delay the availability of much-needed spectrum.

It is also unclear who will be Culture Secretary by then, with incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to name is new cabinet in the coming days. Wright seems keen to keep his job, adding his support for Johnson’s plans for full-fibre broadband across the UK by 2025. He did however suggest that this would require industry incentives if it was to be achieved.

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.