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Mobile connectivity programme behind schedule

22 Feb 2024 4 minute read
Rural mobile phone connectivity

The UK government’s plans to extend 4G mobile connectivity and broaden consumer choice in rural areas are behind schedule, according to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report.

Launched in March 2020, the Shared Rural Network (SRN) is a joint programme funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs): EE, Three, Virgin Media, O2 and Vodafone.

The UK government considers access to good quality mobile connectivity key to growing the UK economy, and the SRN aims to achieve 95% 4G mobile coverage across the UK landmass by December 2025 – up from 91.4% when the programme launched in March 2020.

Delays

By Autumn 2023, 92.7% of UK landmass had 4G coverage, but the programme was behind schedule, with only EE announcing that it had met its interim coverage target. It is not yet clear whether the programme will meet its 95% target on time.

Reasons for delay vary. Government and the MNOs took longer than expected to finalise mast locations, agree site sharing and access, and procure services.

Progress on the programme has also been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, opposition from local campaign groups and local authorities’ capacity to handle planning applications.

Estimated costs have also risen significantly on the programme, due to high inflation and other factors, although it is unclear by how much in total.

As a result of cost pressures, MNOs may no longer be able to deliver the level of coverage required within the current funding, which includes £501 million of government funding, and £532 million of private sector funding – £1.033 billion in total.

Risk

Under the terms of their grant agreement with the government, MNOs bear any additional costs. However, if costs are excessive, MNOs may not be obliged to meet individual targets, further risking the overall ambition to achieve 95% mobile coverage across the UK landmass.

DSIT’s business case suggests the investment will deliver economic benefits of £1.352 billion through supporting tourism and business productivity in rural areas. However, the business case included limited evidence of the specific benefits of extending mobile coverage into remote or sparsely populated areas.

Ofcom requires MNOs to meet a minimum download speed of 2 Mbps (megabits per second). DSIT anticipates an average download speed of 7 Mbps for rural areas, though the Department acknowledges some areas will have lower download speeds.

DSIT expects these lower speeds to meet current needs but recognises that advances in technology could lead to people requiring higher performance in the future, meaning the network may need upgrades.

The government’s plans for future mobile connectivity are outlined in DSIT’s 2023 Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, which was welcomed by MNOs and other stakeholders. The strategy aims to kick-start investment and innovation in 5G infrastructure and sets a new ambition for standalone 5G in all populated areas by 2030.

DSIT estimates that widespread UK adoption of standalone 5G could deliver cumulative productivity benefits of between £41 billion and £159 billion from 2021 to 2035. Since 2017, DSIT has committed around £400 million to initiatives to determine how 5G can be used and to promote its adoption.

“Limited resources”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said:  “Demand for mobile data access is expected to increase as data-intensive services become more popular and new technologies enable new uses, and government has set out a clear ambition for improved connectivity.

“It is unclear whether the Shared Rural Network programme will achieve its coverage target on time; costs are higher than anticipated; and government has not clearly articulated the benefits of aspects of the programme, including increased connectivity in sparsely populated areas.

“As government develops its 5G strategy, it will need to more clearly define what it is aiming to achieve in different parts of the UK and economic sectors, so that limited resources can be targeted where they deliver most value.”


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Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
1 month ago

A programme run by the Tories slides into chaos. Who is surprised by that?

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