Government Reject Calls by UK Mobile Operators for 4G SRN Delay

The CEO of the Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency, Dean Creamer, has told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that officials have rejected a request from several mobile operators to delay completion of the 4G roll-out for Partial Not-Spot (PNS) areas under the £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project by 18-months.

The industry-led 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 O2 (Virgin Media), Vodafone, EE (BT) and Three UK. The goal is to extend geographic 4G coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025 (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.

The programme includes two key targets. The first involves the delivery of industry funded coverage improvements in Partial Not-Spot (PNS) areas (i.e. areas that receive coverage from at least one operator, but not all), which needs to be achieved by June 2024 – at this point 4G (mobile broadband) must cover 88% of the UK’s landmass. EE (BT) recently became the first operator to report having achieved the first target for PNS areas, although Ofcom has yet to confirm this.

The second target involves Total Not-Spot (TNS) areas by early 2027. Just to be clear, Ofcom’s licence obligations commit each individual operator to increase its 4G coverage to 88% of the UK’s landmass by June 2024 – rising to 90% by January 2027 – with these individual obligations supporting the overall target of 95% by December 2025.

However, during February 2024 the National Audit Office (NAO) confirmed (here) that Three UK, Vodafone and O2 were “each likely to miss their Ofcom licence obligation to provide 88% 4G coverage by June 2024” and had requested to “discuss an 18-month extension to the PNS element of the programme.” At present, this only impacts the PNS, not TNS target.

Government Rejects SRN Delays

The issue of a delay came up again yesterday during a formal oral evidence session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on “supporting mobile connectivity” (here), which was attended by committee MPs, as well as Sarah Munby (Permanent Secretary at DSIT), Dean Creamer CBE (BDUK CEO) and Emran Mian CB OBE (Director General for Digital, Technology and Telecoms at DSIT).

The most interesting development from this session came from Dean Creamer, who in referencing the calls by O2, Vodafone and Three UK for a delay to the PNS target, said: “the [mobile operators] didn’t ask for 2 years [delay], they asked for 18 months. That wasn’t accepted, and we haven’t agreed that.” But the question of what they will agree to is more complex.

Creamer pointed out that it was ultimately Ofcom’s responsibility to take a view on whether the licence obligations have been met and what, if anything, they want to do about that. The regulator plans to run its progress assessment during the summer and will reach a conclusion a couple of months later, during the early autumn.

In theory, Ofcom could fine the operators up to 10% of their global turnover, if the roll-out is delayed. But in reality, the regulator is expected to be “reasonable” in their judgement. This is important because some of the delays come from external factors, such as rejected planning applications by local authorities, which are a politically tedious area.

Sarah Munby also made the crucial point that “it’s entirely possible of course for some of those 88% not to be met in June 2024, but to still be in good shape to hit the 95% target in December 2025″. Dean Creamer similarly noted that part of the reason for setting the ultimate SRN completion date in 2027 is to allow some contingency for the inevitable complexities and delays that often flow from mobile infrastructure projects (much as we’ve seen many times before).

Finding suitable sites, securing the necessary permissions through the planning system, obtaining power supply and fibre backhaul – particularly in remote rural areas, are all known bugbears.

Both O2 (VMO2) and Vodafone have issued statements today that reaffirm their “commitment” to the SRN, while Three UK has opted not to comment.

A spokesman for DSIT said:

“Mobile network operators are responsible for delivering the first part of the Shared Rural Network and legally bound to reach 88% geographic coverage by June 2024. The Shared Rural Network has already delivered substantial improvements to mobile coverage across the UK with 4G geographic coverage now at 93.2pc.”

As above, DSIT launched the SRN in March 2020, which has so far led – at least in part (commercial upgrades have played a role too) – to 4G mobile coverage increasing from 91.4% in 2020 to 92.7% in 2023 and the latest data puts it at 93.2% (Feb 2024), against the target of 95% by 2025.

At this point, it’s worth reminding readers that the SRN isn’t the only mobile coverage target to consider. The Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy (WIS) also set an ambition for “all populated areas to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G (5G-plus) by 2030” (here). But the use of terms like “all populated areas” doesn’t really make for the clearest of targets, and we’d have preferred to see one based around geographic coverage.

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