The UK government accepted a proposal by operators to pool resources to address 4G coverage gaps in rural areas, in a deal worth more than £1 billion designed to deliver access to 95 per cent of the country by 2025.
Terms of the plan, which foresees extending coverage to 280,000 additional premises and 16,000km of roads in the countryside, are not yet finalised, with a formal agreement expected early in 2020.
Stated as a world-first in the industry, the deal would result in all four operators investing in a shared network of new and existing masts to “close almost all partial not-spots, areas where there is currently only coverage from at least one, but not all, operators”.
The plan outlines an investment of £530 million by EE, O2 UK, 3 UK and Vodafone UK, with the government committing up to £500 million to ensure the agreement also includes areas currently not covered by any operator.
As part of the deal, the UK government would also allow operators to access infrastructure built as part of an Emergency Services Network deployment, which would deliver up to an additional 2 per cent of geographic coverage per operator in rural locations.
Officials expect the greatest coverage improvements to be felt in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“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”, UK digital secretary Nicky Morgan said.
Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery said by working together, operators “will deliver better coverage while offering more choice for consumers and businesses, using far fewer masts”.
Telefonica UK (O2) chief Mark Evans, described the deal as a “step-change in the way that mobile coverage is delivered”, adding the proposal is “the most ambitious solution” of a number of options considered.
David Dyson, CEO of 3 UK, said 9.3 million people stood to benefit from the deal which, in addition to boosting coverage, would provide rural consumers with “a similar choice as those living in towns and cities”.
And Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division, said the plan would remove “the key barriers to tackling the tricky not-spot problem, ensuring people and businesses right across the UK get access to the digital connectivity they need”.