First of 83 New UK Gov Funded 4G Mast Upgrades Goes Live in England

The first government-funded rural 4G (mobile broadband) mast upgrades for England have today been completed in the market town of Keswick (Cumbria), which forms part of the industry-led £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project with EE (BT), Vodafone, Three UK and O2 (Virgin Media). A further 82 masts in England are also set for upgrades.

The SRN – supported by £501m of public funding and £532m from operators – involves both the reciprocal sharing of existing masts in certain areas and the demand-led building and sharing of new masts in others between the operators (MNO). The target is to extend geographic 4G coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025, which falls to 84% when only considering the areas where you’ll be able to take 4G from all providers.

NOTE: The target varies between regions, thus 4G cover from at least one operator is expected to reach 98% in England, 91% in Scotland, 95% in Wales and 98% in N.Ireland. But this falls to 90% in England, 74% in Scotland, 80% in Wales and 85% in N.Ireland when looking at coverage from all MNOs combined.

Most of the early work on the SRN has involved private investment from the main mobile network operators, although in recent months we’ve also seen government-funded mast upgrades taking place in other parts of the UK, such as Scotland (here), where public investment of £75m is being used to upgrade 120 sites. Similarly, 86 sites in Wales are following by the same example (here).

Today it’s England‘s turn, where public investment under the SRN will be used to upgrade 83 masts with 4G signals. Rural towns and villages in the Lake District are the first to benefit from this, starting with sites in the Cumbrian market town of Keswick. As a result, dozens of local businesses and community organisations in areas including Naddle, Thirlmere and St Johns-in-the-Vale, can now take advantage of better connectivity.

The masts reflect existing sites that have been upgraded to deliver 4G over a wider area. This element of the SRN sees the government (DSIT) providing a total of £184m from the £500m public SRN funding to the Home Office and mobile network operators to help upgrade Extended Area Service (EAS) masts being built as part of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), which helps to eliminate total not-spot areas.

Previously, only EE customers and anyone making 999 calls could benefit from these masts, but now the same will be true for Vodafone, O2 and Three UK.

Julia Lopez, UK Digital Infrastructure Minister, said:

“We’re dialling up fast and reliable mobile coverage across the UK through the Shared Rural Network. Our latest upgrade in the Lake District is one of many we’re working hard to deliver as part of our mission to clamp down on the headache of mobile ‘not spots’.

The coverage boost will provide endless benefits for communities and visitors, ensuring people stay connected on the go, enabling people to work more efficiently and attracting vital investment to the rural economy.”

Since the Shared Rural Network programme began in 2020, an additional 13,000 sq km – roughly the size of Northern Ireland or two million football pitches – have been able to receive coverage from all four operators. The government and the UK’s four mobile network operators ultimately aim to provide coverage to an additional 280,000 premises and 16,000km of the UK’s roads.

Meanwhile, the £532m being committed by mobile operators is largely intended to target partial ‘not spots’, where customers can only access 4G if they’re signed up with a mobile network operator that is active in the area.

The progress, while positive, follows after the National Audit Office (NAO) confirmed that Three UK, Vodafone and O2 are “each likely to miss their Ofcom licence obligation to provide 88% 4G coverage by June 2024” (this reflects the first target for tackling Partial Not-Spot (PNS) areas) and have requested to “discuss an 18-month extension to the PNS element of the programme” (here) – EE has already achieved the target (here).

After that, Ofcom has also set a deadline for improvements in Total Not-Spot (TNS) areas of early 2027, which is currently not being affected by the delays. Just to be clear, Ofcom’s licence obligations commit each individual operator to increase its 4G coverage to 88% of UK landmass by June 2024 – and to 90% by January 2027 – with these individual obligations supporting the overall target of 95% by December 2025.

Recent Posts