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Government secures £1 billion backing for rural 4G project

Work to make the Shared Rural Network a reality will finally commence following years of discussion

Landscape photograph of the English countryside

A long-awaited project to expand 4G coverage to the vast majority of the UK, including the most remote regions, is a step closer to reality after the government secured the £1 billion backing it needed to kickstart the scheme.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has confirmed that it’s finally secured £500 million of public funding, equally matched with industry contributions, to launch the Shared Rural Network (SRN).

This project, which has been subject to discussions and consultations for years, has long been touted as the most effective way to ensure all regions within the UK are granted access to 4G coverage across all mobile networks. The government’s recently-published transparency notice is also a key milestone in making the vision a reality. 

While the majority of the UK enjoys 4G coverage, this isn’t the case for many regions, including the most remote parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. One report recently found even the moon would soon have better 4G coverage than various regions across the UK.

Some areas may be served with 4G signal provided by one or two of the big four operators, but customers of the other providers may not be catered to. There are other regions with no 4G coverage whatsoever, dubbed “not-spots”. 

The SRN has been put forward as the ideal solution to the issue, which would see mobile network providers share their infrastructure with rivals, allowing customers from other networks to benefit from 4G. The alternative would be each operator investing in their own infrastructure for the same regions, which would be considered far too costly. 

“The Shared Rural Network is a key part of the government’s infrastructure revolution to level up and unlock new economic opportunities in every corner of the UK,” said the digital infrastructure minister, Matt Warman MP. 

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“Mobile firms are making great progress boosting 4G services in countryside communities as part of their side of this landmark agreement. With the publication of this notice, we shall now push on with making patchy or poor coverage a thing of the past as we build back better from the pandemic.”

While the scheme is now a step closer to reality, it’s taken a long time to get to this place. The SRN had the support of both the government and major companies in the industry in October 2019, for example. The idea itself, however, predates this with a similar agreement previously struck in 2014.

The commitment agreed between all parties will see the individual operators reach 90% coverage of the UK each, with a combined footprint of 95%.

The operators will collectively contribute £530 million in a shared network of new and existing phone masts, while the government will invest £500 million to target hard-to-reach areas where there’s currently no coverage whatsoever.

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